Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

If you have been following any platform of social media in the past year and a half, you may have noticed the backlash surrounding the phrase "thoughts and prayers." If not, I'm not sure whether to commend you for being able to remove yourself from social media in such a way that you've avoided this, or to ask if you regularly frequent figurative holes to reside in.

Joking aside, as a Christian feminist I have struggled with the backlash against this phrase. I appreciate the sentiment that those opposed to the phrase are trying to express. Namely- in the case of natural disasters, mass shootings, war, and other situations that demand governmental and humanitarian response- saying that "our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by (insert tragedy here)" is not enough. Natural disasters require aid. Mass shootings require a change in gun laws. War torn countries require our attention, action, and help.

However, as a Christian woman, I do believe in the power of prayer. So hearing things like "you can keep your thoughts and prayers" can be a response that I sympathize with but also isn't necessarily helpful in trying to build an effective dialogue that will allow both sides to come together on these issues that for whatever reason divide us. What can maybe be an appropriate response on both sides to situations that require faith but also action?

As a Catholic, I have always been taught that faith and works go together. And as a Scripture scholar, I go to the Bible for guidance. St. James' letter is the text most often quoted on this idea of faith and works being dependent on one another:

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,

and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?

So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead."- James 2:14-17

St. James would seem to be supporting the "keep your thoughts and prayers" camp here in a way. What good are our thoughts and prayers if we are not backing them up with action?

But on the opposite side, we need not neglect the power of prayer if we are persons of faith. Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel while debating the devil in the desert:

"one does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."- Matt. 4:4 

Jesus is referencing the Old Testament here as He combats the devil. He is referencing this verse from Deuteronomy:

"He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD." - Deut. 8:3

And later, the book of Deuteronomy goes on further to say:

"But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good land he has given you."- Deut. 8:10

In other words, when the work of the Lord is done, we should not forget Him and give thanks.

But not everyone in our society believes what we believe as Christians. So our thoughts and prayers may really not mean much to them. It doesn't mean that we cannot give them, but we do need to do more.

Christ says in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel that we should keep our prayers in secret and not go boasting about them (Matthew 6: 5-8). However, He also says that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them." (Matt. 18:20). So which is it?

Sin is always about our intention. That is to say, no one can know if our intentions were good or not, ultimately,except for God. We may really truly want to help people with our prayers, and we can certainly pray for them. But only God will see those intentions and prayers initially.

If we want people to see our faith and see our intentions, it must be done through action. We can pray in secret. We can pray in our faith communities. But if we want people to see our true intentions, we have to show them through service. And, yes, I believe that prayer can make change. But God uses us as agents of change.

There is a famous quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." This is to say that we can live and communicate the Gospel through our actions and we know the other adage that accompanies this: "actions speak louder than words."

I believe that St. James and St. Francis took their cues from Jesus. They saw Him both speaking AND acting: from His many miracles of healing to His physical action of giving up His life. The action and image of the cross certainly says more than we could ever say or think. And that action was His prayer.

So thoughts and prayers? Or actions? I say, let your action be united with your prayer let your prayer motivate your action.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Entering the Desert: Lent 2018

Happy Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday! The joke going around social media this year is that we are putting the "lent" in Valentine's Day today. I'm sure St. Valentine would have wanted it no other way.

Some years, Lent just kind of creeps up on us, especially when Easter is early, which it is this year. However, in a shocking turn of events, I actually find myself more ready for Lent than I have been in a long time. I credit the new communities that I have found myself a part of this year and specifically a group of ecumenical Christian feminist bloggers.

The lady-bloggers and I are in the getting-to-know-each-other stage of the relationship, and we are taking the time to share reflections in a group chat and some of us are even trying the Whole 30 together. Nothing says sisterhood like helping each other get through 30 days without cheese, wine, and carbs!

We also decided early on to do a Lenten devotional together. The one that we chose is a study of Exodus.

Exodus is one of the books of the Bible that I enjoy teaching in my Scripture course and my students enjoy learning about. It, of course, has huge significance in our Christian Paschal Mystery since Jesus was celebrating Passover when instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper. I'm not sure why, then, I was surprised that our Lenten devotional is truly focusing just on the Exodus story and not much else. And even though we are just one day into it, I'm already totally on board with the journey that it is going to take us through.

Exodus starts where Genesis leaves off. Joseph of "technicolor dreamcoat" fame is the last major patriarch we read about in Genesis and he has risen to power in Egypt and the rest of Jacob's family has come to join him due to famine. At the beginning of Exodus, however, the new pharaoh in Egypt is not having any of Joseph's fame and has decided to oppress the Israelites, making them slaves.

It is not lost on me that we start Lent thinking about oppression. We think about the oppression of our sin. We think about the things that weigh us down and hold us back from uniting more fully with God. I feel like I can see where this devotional is taking my lady-bloggers and I, but we all know what happens when one "assumes." I'm going to try and keep an open mind.

In thinking about oppression, I can't help but think of all of the different groups of people still oppressed around the world. Victims of human trafficking. Victims of oppressive governments. Victims of racism and sexism. And today we watched on the news yet another school shooting take the lives of innocent school children. I believe that our own society is oppressed by our selfishness and enslavement to big businesses, political parties, and lobbies like the NRA. We are so trapped that we can't stop something so simple as not allowing gun violence to continue to take the lives of our citizens.

I am praying that as we continue through this Lenten journey, we will be liberated in some way from the oppression of this world and realize the freedom that we have in the truths of Christianity-two of those truths being Love and Forgiveness. And I believe in the power of prayer, but I know that action needs to be taken as well. I'm interested in looking closely at Moses as the model for this as the ladies and I move through the study.

God liberating His people through Moses is one of the quintessential salvation stories. Second only probably to that of  the ultimate story of salvation- His Son's saving us by His Cross and Resurrection. I am looking forward to diving into this mystery with Moses and with a community that I very much prayed for last year. 

Something else that I am doing for prayer this year, is something that I have modeled after a friend that I have kept in touch with from ministry during my time in Arlington. Each year, she asks for prayer requests from others on social media and commits to praying for them each day of Lent. I have taken a page from her book this year, and asked for intentions via social media. I have made a list and am keeping them close as we journey towards Easter. Know that readers of this blog count as well :)

I'm praying that this is a blessed Lent for all of us this year. One of true love and liberation.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Fire and Ice: Happy New Year- 2018!

Happy New Year! Even though the liturgical year began at Advent, there is still something exciting about officially starting a new calendar year. There is always hope of the possibilities, reflections on the year past, and relief that some things are now solidified in the year behind us.

I am trying not to have any expectations of this new year. Last year, I began with much trepidation because of the incoming president. Because of the results of all of the political drama last year, I expect this year to have much of the same. But because I also saw many movements begin to emerge and communities come together last year, I do also expect there to be positive response to that expected drama.

And that's all I've got so far for 2018.

Except! I've already also had two snow days in this new year, and with snow there also comes reflection on my part. Snow days can be good and bad for me. Who doesn't love the mandated time to stay inside and relax? And while I loooooove living alone, too much time alone isn't good for me. I like to be on the go and have options. Snow can also inhibit that for me.

Some of the positive things that came out of last year, were new Christian communities of women that kind of presented themselves to me. I have always been a part of women's prayer groups since I started my serious Christian journey, and didn't realize how much I missed or needed that practice since I've moved to Richmond.

One of the groups that I have become a part of has decided to read Ronald Rolheiser's "The Holy Longing" together. We just started the book in December and will meet to discuss the first chapter later this month.

This book is a Catholic spiritual classic, so I can't believe that I hadn't read it in its entirety before.

The book begins by just introducing the concept of spirituality and the soul. The author illustrates the point that the soul needs many things to nourish it, otherwise it will not be healthy. He uses the symbols of fire and water to show us that we need both passion and peace to sustain the soul.

After reflecting on the ancient symbols of fire and water, my nerdy brain immediately went to Game of Thrones' forces of Fire and Ice that are so prevalent and important in the series and show!

Rolheiser makes the case that it is no coincidence that many ancient rituals focused on these symbols of fire and water. Fire represents the passion and energy that the soul needs to be ignited. Water represents the peace and cleanliness that it also needs to survive.

I think as Christians- and especially as a Catholic- we focus so much on the water element needed for the soul. We understand the tranquility that prayer provides and the cleanliness that the Sacraments of Baptism and Confession give. The Holy Spirit and the Light of Christ are the images often associated with fire in our faith and we certainly believe that they provide the ignition and power to spark and sustain that faith.

But we need our own sparks as well, right? The Light of Christ and the Holy Spirit are perfect and holy and sustaining. It can be argued that we shouldn't need anything else. But we are human. And isn't the Trinity found in all life-giving things?

For example, I find both fire and water- passion and peace- in art and prayer. These things ignite me and calm me simultaneously and I believe that the Trinity is certainly evident in both.

As an introvert, I think I also tend to the waters of peace more often because I know that I need them for my own rejuvenation. But I also recognize that I need to go out and step outside myself and be around loved ones to ignite fire and energy, otherwise the waters will start to drown me (how far can I go with this metaphor, do we think? :)

Every New Year's Eve (with maybe only a couple exceptions in the last couple of years), some of my college friends and I get together to ring in the new year. We go all out. We dress up, we shell out for a hotel and food and drinks, and we just celebrate. This annual celebration gives me so much life that sustains me for weeks to come. It also gives my heart peace to be with people who know me and have loved me for a really long time now.

Certainly to party and wine and dine can ignite fire and bring energy into our lives. But I also have found at periods of my life that too much of it just burns me out (the metaphor that keeps on giving!). So like all things, the fire and water are about balance. And the Trinity can certainly be at the center of both things because we need both to sustain our soul.

This icy snow day at the beginning of this new year has me thinking: what ignites the fire in my soul? What can I do to spark it? And similarly, what brings me tranquility and peace? As I mentioned, sometimes things can do both. Travel and celebrations and art ignite my soul. But they also bring me peace and tranquility.

We can certainly expect more of those things, then, for me in 2018!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Rejoicing in Mary: Third Week of Advent 2017

Advent has been different this year for many reasons. For one, it is very short this year! The fourth week of Advent only lasts for barely 24 hours before we celebrate Christmas Eve that same night as the fourth Sunday of Advent. I find myself wanting to celebrate Advent a little longer which makes NO sense because I should be rejoicing that it is now almost Christmas!

The third week of Advent has been a week of rejoicing, but for different reasons. On Gaudate Sunday last Sunday, I found myself very grateful for community. The previous and second week of Advent had been filled with celebrations and meetings with various communities in my life: faith communities, work communities, and friend communities. I was out celebrating almost every night that week! And even though I am an introvert, I do enjoy a party when I know it will be with a strong community.

Advent has also been different for me this year because I have been doing the 33 day consecration to Mary, but a slightly different version than I have done in the past. This version was suggested by a friend and former member of one of the many communities I have been apart of in my life, who knows me well. The consecration focuses on Mary (obviously) through the lives of three of our more modern day saints: St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Pope John Paul II. (Two out of the three are of my beloved Polish heritage! I've got good genes :)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, 2017- particularly at the beginning of this year and also this fall- were a struggle for myself and many of us. Our country has exposed many of our open wounds in our culture and in our history and we are very divided on how to deal with them. It seems as soon as I would regain hope, a new wound would be opened and I would be overwhelmed again. I also have mentioned that it feels lonely to be a Christian in this time. Well, a Christian, at least, who seems to interpret the Gospel in a way that is very different than the Christians shown in the mainstream media.

Taking this journey with Mary through the eyes of these great saints has helped, however. Each of them must've felt very alone and overwhelmed in their lives: Maximilian died in a concentration camp in Poland. I can only imagine the sadness and confusion he must've felt to witness such evil. Teresa of Calcutta surely was overwhelmed by the poverty she encountered in India and in our world. She even experienced the "dark night of the soul" where she lost the consolation of "feeling" God is near. And lastly, John Paul II suffered when a person attempted to take his life, and he also witnessed ramifications of the Holocaust and the Cold War.

If all of these saints also felt alone or overwhelmed, like I believe they must have, I am- we are- in very good company. The opposite of being alone.

 St. Maximilian Kolbe with the Auschwitz prisoner's attire is heart wrenching...
 Love this image of St. Teresa of Calcutta!
Look at that holy, Polish saint!

Today, I woke up to more bad news in the media. Every day when it seems like it can't get worse, it does: fighting in Jerusalem fanned by our own president, tax bills being passed in the middle of the night that will cut taxes for the wealthy, threats of nuclear war from the East, tampering from spies in Russia with our democracy, people believing fake news to be real. I was feeling overwhelmed again, but then I started my meditation for the day.

The author spoke of Mary as the ultimate mediator of God's Mercy. Pope Francis reminded us almost two years ago about the importance of Mercy as well. We need God's Mercy in times like these. Only His perfect Love and forgiveness can fix and heal us.

Mary stood at the foot of the cross. So many must've thought all hope was lost in that moment. But as Christ poured out His Mercy for sin, she stood there willing to help and continuing to trust. She can help us receive and administer God's Mercy as she did then with her strength.

I've mentioned before that this year, more than ever, I've come to finally appreciate and understand Mary's role as one of strength. The author of the book we are using shows her as "perceptive" and knowing the needs of others at the Wedding at Cana. He shows her bravery and openness in the midst of suffering in the foot of the cross. These are things that I, we, need right now.

As we continue to draw closer to Christmas- thinking about God bringing His Light into the world- I continue to hope that we realize that Christmas is about Light. Peace. Hope. Joy. Not money. Not fear. Not condemnation. Jesus came into the world to speak against those things.

I have to remind myself that the Light has already conquered the darkness and Truth sets us free. God is that Light and that Truth and we remember this at Christmas.
May the Light that Christ brings at Christmas give us the Peace that we need.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Year in Review- Feast of Christ the King 2017

It's here! The Feast of Christ the King! Which brings an end to The Year of Grace and our liturgical year.

It was a different kind of year with a different kind of vibe, but many, many blessings nonetheless. Here are my highlights from this year!

So I rang in the New Year in RVA this year with some of my very best people. 

In March of this year, we opened up our new Middle School building with the bishop's blessing. Unfortunately, we lost the bishop this year in August. I'm grateful for the few times that I got to meet him.

I continue to be blessed by my school community and my fellow teachers. Here is an outing we took to the VCU River Center in April. 

 I spent my 36th birthday this year with a friend from Philly who came down on our Spring Break. She can be seen above with some of my Richmond friends as they try to help me with online dating (they weren't successful!) She and I spent some time in RVA and then drove to Charleston for a music festival!

I got to visit family in Ohio for a cousin's wedding in May. 
And one of my besties and I took our trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco this summer! With stops in Avila and Fatima to name a few!

My immediate family took a family vacation to Virginia Beach this past August.
Fall was very busy and had its ups and downs, but my friends and I always go all out for Halloween!
And this year's Thanksgiving was very blessed because of the people I met and chatted with at this table. 

All in all, another great year spent with friends, family, and doing things that I love. I have to say that I am blessed. Looking forward to whatever He brings in the new year.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

To Jesus Through Mary

I really am on a roll this week! It is amazing what some quality prayer and reflection time can do!

As I mentioned in my last post, I have begun the re-consecration to Jesus through Mary as emphasized by St. Louis de Monfort. Today is only day 3, but I already have started to receive some great insights.

The author of the book that my friend and I are using used this quote by de Monfort today and it struck me: "Satan, being proud, suffers infinitely more from being beaten and punished by a little and humble handmaid of God, and her humility humbles him more than the divine power."

In the past, I have struggled with quotes like this. I feel like I haven't been able to relate to Mary in my life because she is always described as "little and humble." How can her humility defeat evil more than divine power?

I also struggle with my image of Mary because she is so often depicted like a white Renaissance queen or movie star. This is literally what popped up when I googled: "Mary Middle Eastern girl." WHAT?!

Enter this past year with this current administration. The above de Monfort quote jumped out at me because, thanks to this current elected administration, I can see how a humble, little girl would infuriate a proud, disturbed power.

I've written earlier this year about how God has been calling me to look at Mary and my relationship with her more closely. I have had to give several talks about her this last year to various groups, and I also was asked to lead a Bible Study on her at my parish this past May. Even though I struggle, I struggle with this political climate more! And it is interesting that because of our current political climate that I am beginning to understand and appreciate Mary.

Mary is everything that I believe our current administration looks down on and detests: female, poor, foreign, refugee, good, pure. The men in power in our country have tried to create so many laws in the past year to denounce and oppress people like Mary. In a weird way, because of that, I am now able to see our need for  her and appreciate her more. De Monfort's quote made me realize that it is true that her humility would embarrass the proud if brought down by someone like her. And therefore, I see now more than ever, our need for her prayers and strength!

That may be a twisted way of going about understanding her, but to me it makes sense. And going to Fatima this year, too, showed me that she wants us to go to her in times of war and fear and trial. She tells us to pray the rosary and go to her when things in the world are not right.

So it finally is making sense to me and I am looking forward to re-consecrating myself to her Son through her strength as well as entrusting our world to her. I pray that she can teach us all how to join together in her humble way to defeat the evil in our world.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Giving Thanks 2017 Part 2

This is always how it goes, isn't it? I don't write for a while, and then I have back to back to back posts for two weeks in a row!

I wanted to follow up my previous post because the Lord continues to work in overtime these past couple of weeks for me. He has brought about many graces for me of late and I will take them! As I mentioned previously, the year has been tough and dark at times, but He has reminded me so much of His providence and faithfulness lately. I just have to document it and give Him His due!

In my last post, I mentioned that I had recently discerned quitting my second job as a part-time bartender. Quitting this job, I believe, really freed me and opened me up to all of these graces that I am experiencing now. I took a risk, though, because I wasn't sure (and still am not exactly) if I will be able to sustain my lifestyle without that little bit of income. I will say that when it comes to finances and work, God has always been very, very generous with me. He always provides. Even though I am  a teacher and I don't make a lot, I believe that He knows that I am working for His Church and He always makes sure that I can make ends meet.

For example, in the woman's prayer group meeting that I had last week, I reconnected with someone who also does music ministry. I did not know that she was actively doing music ministry in the area, but she offered to put me on the sub list at her parish so that I could make some extra money. I already have had one opportunity there so far! I also floated my name to some other parish music ministers in the area and received an email from someone I don't even know and he passed my name along to a spiritual leader at a nearby hospital. Their chapel is having an Advent prayer service next week for which I will be playing! It is truly, truly amazing how God provides and how I always conveniently forget this is equally amazing. Ha!
Some of the new gigs may involve me playing the organ, which I don't really know how to play sooo...I decided to try and learn recently!

Like I said, I was called in to sub at a parish already and the Mass was actually for a funeral. Playing for weddings or funerals is always extra pressure because this is a very important event in these people's lives and they are trusting you to help celebrate it. I have been lucky to always have positive experiences, but I still get nervous nonetheless, especially at a parish with people I haven't met before.

The funeral was for an 89 year old woman. I didn't know much about her other than that. That is the other interesting thing about playing for funerals. You don't often know the people who have passed away. The family and guests give you little clues, and I often learn a lot from the homilies and eulogies.

This woman who had passed was apparently always smiling. She also was (from what I can intuit) an accountant and ran some kind of business doing people's taxes when it wasn't common for a woman to do so. The man who gave the eulogy did an excellent job and he read a letter from the woman's granddaughter. The granddaughter said that she was proud of her grandmother and that she was an inspiration to her. She was proud to have a grandmother who was "ahead of her time", running her own business and working hard her whole life. She apparently retired only two years prior at the age of 87! I can't even imagine! But it sounded like she loved life and her work.

It made me think, of course, of my own grandmother who is going to be 95 next year! I, too, am proud of my grandmother and the hardships she has been through. It made me think of what I would say if I were ever in that position and it made me feel for the family and feel closer to the woman who was being eulogized. It is an honor to be let in to those kinds of moments for a family. It's more than just a paycheck.

I'm also really interested see how this Advent service at the hospital goes next week. There are children who will be singing and I will be accompanying them. I went to rehearse with them and meet with the woman in charge this Wed before Thanksgiving. These kids are YOUNG. Like...pre-school to 1st grade young. Those of you who know me, know that working with kids that young is outside of my comfort zone! But I enjoyed meeting them and the staff members at the hospital and I know that the event will be blessed. How awesome that God hooks us up with these opportunities when we need it?? That's what I mean about grace!

My fellow "table hosts" and I yesterday at The Giving Heart on Thanksgiving

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I usually spend it with friends in Northern VA, but this year I stayed in Richmond and decided to volunteer. A friend recommended working with The Giving Heart which plans this large meal at the convention center downtown every year. I heard that they sometimes serve up to 3,000 people.

My job as a table host was simply to sit with those who came to the meal and chat with them and make them feel welcomed. My fellow table hosts pictured above and I were fortunate to dine with a family of 5- a mother and daughter, the daughter's boyfriend and two of her friends from her shelter. I was so glad to be a part of this event. Everyone was so, so pleasant and happy. As you can see, table hosts were invited to decorate their tables. I was fortunate that one of our table hosts was a veteran at this and brought beautiful decorations! All of the volunteers took pride in their tables and all of the people we met were grateful and personable. I definitely recommend doing this event or something like it if you are able. I was done by 2:30pm and able to join some friends for drinks and meal #2 after. It was a great way to spend the holiday and what I believe a holiday like Thanksgiving is about. It restored my faith and hope in humanity for a few hours :)

These are just a few of the graces I have received in the last few days. I also was able to spend a couple of nights having good conversation (and beer) with my teacher coworkers and I have started my most recent novena(s) that will end on the Feast of Christ the King and Christmas respectively.

A friend from my volunteer year asked if I had ever made a Consecration to Jesus through Mary (as written and practiced by Louis de Monfort. Many, many of the saints and popes have done this same prayer!). It's a 33 day exercise with readings and prayers that ends on a Marian feast. When my friend asked me if I had done it before, I knew that I had, but I couldn't remember when. Turns out I have made it THREE times! Once before the convent, once in the convent, and once after the convent!

You sign the letter at the end of the Consecration when you finish the 33 days. I definitely don't recall the first two times that I did this! Am I old? Or was I just so taken in by the Holy Spirit? Ha! The former for sure!

So I have started my re-consecration with my friend and we will be ending on Christmas. I think it's the perfect way to spend Advent and definitely long overdue! I'm looking forward to walking with my friend and Mary this Advent season.

Just a few more days of this liturgical year! Get ready for some end of the year posts for Christ the King very soon!

I'm so grateful for all of God's Grace in this Year of Grace and looking forward to what the new year brings.