Today, January 24, we celebrate our third child Genevieve’s birthday. Eleven years ago today, I held my newborn baby with tears in my eyes as I watched the March for Life taking place in Washington D.C. My heart was overcome with emotion as I cradled her in my arms and fed her, so thankful for the new life I held close to my heart.
I can only imagine the fear an unplanned pregnancy would bring to any mother who found herself pregnant, yet not feeling able to provide for the child she carried within her. By God’s grace, I was married and we were ready to welcome and support our children when they arrived; yet I realize that not every pregnancy comes at the most opportune time. To these mothers, we offer our daily prayers, support and love and say, as President Trump said today at the 2020 March for Life, “Every life brings love!” God has a way of helping us through the most difficult and heart-wrenching situations and bringing good out of every hardship, if we only trust him and follow his will for our lives and for the life of every unborn child.
St. John Paul II so beautifully addressed us, “America you are beautiful . . . and blessed . . . . The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless. If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life.”
My children (and husband!) really like video games. Although I often discourage this addictive habit in favor of them choosing to be active and play outside, I must admit there are times when an exciting round of Legend of Zelda or Animal Crossing has brought our family together, in the same room, and provided evenings of family entertainment. Recently, the winter weather and a bout of a flu-like illness resulting in several sick days has given us opportunities for several rousing video game marathons in our living room. I realized that gaming is not all bad, as it brought us together, in one room, for some family fun and healthy competition. Upon examination, I was even able to draw some parallels between the video game world and the pursuit of the spiritual life.
In video games, there is usually a conflict of good versus bad; a battling of opposing forces. Similarly, in life, we battle the destructive forces of evil in the forms of the world, the flesh, and the devil, in our daily lives. We are reminded of the battle between St. Michael and the devil in Revelation: “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” (Rev 12:7-8) We must be on guard against the temptations and pitfalls that can lead us astray from God and living a holy life. As in gaming we try to destroy the evil forces that threaten our survival, in the spiritual life, we work diligently every day through prayer, the sacraments, and living good lives, to attack and eliminate the temptations of the devil in our lives, and our own vices and faults, so that we can become more Christlike.
In gaming, as in life, we are working toward an ultimate goal. We are pursuing a victorious end – to win the game and obtain a triumph or successful end. We can and should look at our lives as a pursuit of the ultimate goal of heaven. It takes commitment and perseverance to achieve this goal and it is not achieved easily. We give time and attention to our relationship with Jesus and work diligently toward becoming saints so that we can win the crown. St. Paul encourages us to compete well to the end to win the prize of heaven. “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. (1 Cor. 9:24-25) Are we disciplining ourselves daily and keeping our eyes on the “prize” – to achieve the ultimate reward, life in heaven with God?
When playing video games, you are usually given several lives, or chances, to obtain the objective of the game. In his great mercy, God also extends many opportunities for us to rise and begin again when we fall. One of the greatest gifts we have as Catholics is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we can be cleansed of our sins and begin again. In essence, we receive a “new life” with which we can start over after every defeat. As Our Lord instructed St. Faustina,“Tell souls where they are to look for solace, that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated.” (Diary #1448) When we approach the confessional, we receive a chance to begin anew with a clean slate and to correct our sins and faults through penance and a change of heart.
Even though I wish my children would opt more often for active pastimes, I am trying to look on the bright side and see the benefit of sitting indoors and working a Nintendo controller on days when there are no alternatives. I have loved basking in our warm living room this wintry season with my family, experiencing the time we have together. Despite my hesitation and misgivings, we have certainly created some special moments that I will fondly remember.
Because of God’s great love for us, he desires an intimate relationship and communication with us. God calls us to conversation and a loving exchange, and we respond accordingly. This exchange is known to us as prayer. “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” (Catechism #2560)
There are many types of prayer and all are acceptable to God. Meditation is a form of prayer which is encouraged and beneficial to growth in the spiritual life. It is a stage in the progression of prayer that begins with vocal prayer, progresses to meditation, and ascends to contemplative prayer, which is remaining in silence in the presence of God. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes meditation as, “calling to mind some dogmatic or moral truth, and reflecting on or discussing this truth according to each one’s capacity, so as to move the will and produce in us amendment.” According to the Catechism, “meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.” (Catechism #2705)The practice of meditation is described by the Catechism as utilizing, “thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ.” (Catechism #2708)
I recall attempting to pray the Rosary as a child, and even as a teenager continued to carry the beads with me, reciting the Our Fathers and Hail Marys, usually in petition or when I felt in need of God’s help. Although praying the Rosary is an exemplary form of meditative prayer, and I continue to pray it daily, my faith then was childlike and lacked the depth that comes with experience and trials of life. Rather than merely reciting the memorized words of the cherished prayers upon the beads, my Rosary has become more of a meditative prayer, reflecting upon the mysteries in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Today, in adulthood, in addition to reciting the Rosary, I recognize the importance of also carving out a portion of each day to be spent reading and reflecting on the truths of the Faith and the Word of God. I have come to understand that, like in any other relationship, it is necessary to cultivate friendship and communication with God through meditative prayer – listening to his words and the wisdom of the saints and reflecting on them.
Meditation comes in many forms and can be nourished by Scripture, the writings of the saints or the Church fathers, holy images, or other types of spiritual writings. There are many methods of meditation and many books are available detailing its practice. The writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, both Carmelite doctors of the Church, are preeminent sources of instruction on setting out on the way of meditation and contemplation. As the saints will tell us, what is important is to remember that the aim or objective of meditation is knowledge of the love of Christ and union with him.
Aside from the Carmelite doctors, many other of the saints stress the importance of meditation for growing in the spiritual life. St. Padre Pio likens meditation to checking our reflection in a mirror: “Whoever does not meditate is like someone who never looks in the mirror before going out, doesn’t bother to see if he’s tidy, and may go out dirty without knowing it.” Through it, we become more in tune with the ways of God and more self aware. We are enlightened about ourselves – our imperfections and faults and how to correct them, and we often receive insight into God’s will for our lives. In short, we come to know God more and to be transformed into his likeness.
In her Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux expressed her love of Scripture and how the gospels nourished her soul and provided inspiration for her periods of meditation and contemplative prayer. Drawing upon her wisdom and experience, I have found that spending time in prayer with Scripture, especially the gospels, which contain the words and actions of Jesus himself, has been the most beneficial form of meditative prayer for me, as it is for many others. Often a word, phrase, or passage jumps out and seems to resonate during prayer. I often pause with that particular thought, reflecting upon it to contemplate its deeper meaning and allowing the Lord to speak to my heart.
Although Scripture usually considered the most effective material for meditation, other works and images can be used to supplement prayer as well. There are numerous books and writings which are excellent for inspiring meditative prayer. Some of these, according to the Catechism, include: “the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history.” One of my own personal favorite sources for spiritual reading and reflection is the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, which was also loved by St. Therese, St. Thomas More, and St. Ignatius. The Imitation is a masterful collection of wisdom and instruction on the way of holiness and the spiritual life.
Along with reading the material and reflecting upon it, St. Frances Xavier found it helpful to write down the thoughts and inspirations which come to a person during meditative prayer. He says, “When you meditate on all these things, I earnestly advise you to write down, as a help to your memory, those heavenly lights which our merciful God so often gives to the soul which draws near to him, and with which he will also enlighten yours when you strive to know his will in meditation, for they are more deeply impressed on the mind by the very act and occupation of writing them down.” Through this action, the saint says, we can refer back to our notations and will be reminded of the insights we have gained through our prayer.
Although we are relentlessly bombarded with distractions from the world, it is vital to take time to incorporate prayer into our daily lives. Meditation is an excellent method of seeking communion with God. On the importance of this practice, the Imitation of Christ proclaims, “In silence and stillness the devout soul advances and learns the hidden truths of Scripture. There it finds the salutary tears that wash away the guilt of sin, so that it grows more intimate with God as it severs itself from the clamor of the world.” (Imitation, Book 1, Ch. 20) Meditation and prayer are necessary to maintaining peace and joy in our daily lives. Through these practices, we come to know God more intimately and love him more completely.
In this age of immediate gratification, our phones are updated, information is received, and goods and services are delivered, quickly, if not instantly. In the blink of an eye, our physical needs are met. We forget, however, that God can meet our spiritual and physical needs quickly – in an instant, if he wishes to. He often does so through the prayers and intercession of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Today, January 8, we honor Mary under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, or “Quick Help,” and, as we remember instances of her speedy and miraculous intercession, we are reminded to call on her in our times of need.
The title dates back to 1727, when a devotion to “Notre Dame de Prompt Secours” spread among the Ursuline Sisters and the people of New Orleans, who invoked her for protection and assistance. In 1812, facing a horrific fire which was consuming the city of New Orleans, the Ursuline nuns, in a desperate act of faith, placed a small, gold statue of Our Lady in the window of their convent facing the fire and pleaded, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us or we are lost!” Suddenly, the wind changed direction and the convent was miraculously saved.
Three years later, during the Battle of New Orleans, in which the Americans were greatly outnumbered by the British, these same nuns stormed heaven for a victory. They received word during Mass on the morning of January 8, 1815, that the American troops, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson, had managed an astounding defeat over the British. Once again, the quick answer to prayer was credited to the Blessed Virgin, under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. To thank Our Lady, the nuns promised to celebrate a Mass on the anniversary of the victory, January 8, a tradition which continues today.
Because of the miraculous intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, she has been declared the patroness of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. The crowning of the miraculous statue was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1874. Pilgrims visit the exquisite statue today in New Orleans at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on State Street.
These stories of long ago can serve to inspire and encourage us to seek the powerful and speedy help of Mary in all of our needs and petitions. She is still the same vigilant mother interceding for her children with Jesus and obtaining timely answers to our prayers, if only we call out to her in faith and trust as the Ursuline nuns did years ago. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, she is still today invoked as “Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” As she assented to her role in God’s Plan at the Annunciation and faithfully fulfilled her purpose standing by the Cross, she continues her mission today. “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation …” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 969)
Years ago, I received an unusual visit from a woman selling religious prints. On her suggestion, I purchased an image of Jesus kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. I kept the picture and wondered about its significance over the years. Only later did I understand its relevance to my life.
Today I see this image of the Agony in the Garden as God as a sign of God preparing and strengthening me for the difficulties I would encounter on the road ahead of me. Obtaining the picture was a reminder to me to continue to be faithful to prayer and fasting as a means of preparing for the future. The scene of Jesus in the Garden is normally associated with Lent and the preparation for Good Friday and Easter. How can the remembrance of the Agony in the Garden apply to the season of Advent? As Jesus retreated from the world to the Garden to prepare in prayer for his darkest hour, there are times in life when we are called to wait and pray in preparation for the events of life so we can gather strength and courage to do God’s will. Advent is a time of prayerful preparation for the coming of the Infant Jesus into our hearts at Christmas. Just as Jesus withdrew from the world to prepare for his Passion, the Church invites us to take time to retreat from the busyness and bustle of the commercial aspect of Christmas to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through prayer and sacrifice.
At times, the path of silence and contemplation can seem to be a difficult and lonely one. Jesus experienced loneliness and anxiety when he discovered that his closest friends were asleep while he prayed to the Father in the Garden. While the world tells us to find our joy in constant noise and activity around the Christmas season, we hold a priceless secret – that true peace and joy are to be discovered in Him alone. We find this peace and joy when we follow St. Teresa’s of Avila’s advice and frequently “take time to be alone with him who we know loves us” through prayer. Only when we commit to time with him will we be able to hear his voice and recognize the many ways he communicates with us through the working of the Holy Spirit. If we commit to daily reflection during the Advent season, our hearts will be prepared to welcome Jesus at Christmas time.
John the Baptist exhorts us, in the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!“ (Matt 3:2) and to Prepare the way of the Lord,make straight his paths.” (Matt 3:3) The gospel reading from Matthew for the First Sunday in Advent also emphasizes urgency and reminds us to watch and pray to be ready for the coming of Christ. The reading concludes with the passage:
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Matt 24:42-44)
In addition to time for prayer, fasting is an important component of preparation and “staying awake” for the coming of the Child Jesus at Christmas. Most of us are blessed with everything we need and more; we experience abundance without the pain of poverty and need that the less fortunate in the world experience. It is necessary to make conscious sacrifices and to deny ourselves of some conveniences and sense pleasures during the season of Advent to remain fully awake and aware of the voice of the Lord speaking in our hearts. When we make sacrifices and experience need and deprivation, we unite ourselves with Mary and Joseph in their poverty, as they traveled to Bethlehem and as they searched for a place to welcome the Christ Child.
When I see the image of Jesus in his Agony, it still today reminds me of the necessity of prayer and penance at all times, but especially in times of preparation, as in Lent and Advent. Through prayer and fasting, we are purified from the effects of sin and remain open and ready for God to bless us with his gifts of peace during the Advent season and at Christmas. Let us prepare our hearts and encourage our families to do the same as we await with joyful anticipation the coming of Our Lord at Christmas.
“As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.”
Recently, I came across an inspirational sign which caught my eye that read, “Slow down, happiness is trying to catch you.” Those words resonated within me and reminded me of my own need to slow down and to be alert and fully present in the current moment, instead of mindlessly forging ahead with whatever projects and goals I may have set for myself. So often we rush around, pursuing our own plans, instead of slowing down to listen to the Holy Spirit’s soft whispering. What we fail to realize is that peace and true happiness will only be found in God’s will, which, very often, we ignore or miss in our hectic pursuit of success and achievement.
The last two weeks have been challenging, as my second daughter, who has a diagnosis of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, had a setback and has been home from school, struggling to deal with her diagnoses and the additional burden of depression. These two weeks I have had to let go of my routines and plans and slow down to a crawl to accompany her as she recovers and learns how to cope with life carrying all of these heavy burdens, along with her schoolwork and other responsibilities. I realized that I had been rushing ahead with my life, not fully aware of the extent of the hardships she faces from day to day, trying to survive in a world that is too fast and complex for her to keep up. Although we have tried to meet all of her needs at home and school, I realized she needs more intense care and support than we have been giving her.
This time with her has been a blessing, as I have found happiness and joy in spending quiet moments with her and have been able to appreciate the beautiful soul that she is, and to be thankful that God has gifted our family with her. I felt like Simon the Cyrenian, who was chosen to trudge slowly and painfully through the dust with Jesus as he carried his Cross. I wondered if Simon had to slow down prayerfully to respond to the promptings to the Holy Spirit that lead him to that fateful spot, where he was given his momentous task of assisting our Savior and providing relief to him as he walked the Way of the Cross. Surely, Simon had to sacrifice his own will and plans to assume the duty of carrying the Cross with Jesus. Similarly, we are called to surrender our will and our plans to the Divine Will so we can serve others and cooperate in God’s plan for our lives.
I am thankful to God for the opportunity to be Simon to our daughter, shouldering some of the burden of her heavy crosses for her and hopefully easing some of her pain and suffering. Each of us has the opportunity every day to slow down and find a suffering soul in need of a Simon to help – someone who needs us to lean on or to look to for comfort, aid, or companionship. So many people are suffering spiritually and emotionally in our world; how can we reach out to those around us in need each day? There are people all around us, in our homes, within our families, and among our friends, who are quietly suffering and need a helping hand or a warm embrace. As mothers, we have built-in opportunities to minister to our children daily and help each of them to carry their own unique crosses.
Mother Teresa told us to “find our own Calcutta,” where we can bring Christ to others. “Giving drink to the thirsty” can involve more than a cup of water. It can be a visit to the lonely, a word of comfort to the sorrowing, or simply lending an ear to listen to someone who is hurting. When we identify the suffering souls in our lives and reach out to them with love and care, we are serving as the hands and feet of Christ to them. This is true happiness and joy – not to acquire more money, possessions, status, or power, but to serve others and receive the grace that comes with imitating Christ in our lives. Who are the suffering souls in your life, and how can you be Simon to them today?
If you are like me, managing all of the tasks and difficulties of each day can lead to tension and stress. I am usually not the calm, collected one of the family, and I often turn to family members for advice and help when I am overwhelmed with stress.
My husband has a unique talent of coming up with appropriate and descriptive analogies. When there is a problem or a situation he wants to explain, he is always quick to create an analogy that puts everything into perspective and helps me to understand the situation better. Recently I presented him with a number of pressing problems I was dealing with. In typical overreactive fashion, I had become overwhelmed with the gravity of it all. He calls this lumping everything into one giant catastrophe the “snowball.”
He asked me what the first thing I do when attempting to wash clothes is. I responded that when I tackle the laundry, the first thing I do is to sort the clothes. I started to see where he was going with this. When overwhelmed and anxious over life’s worries and problems, the best thing to do is to sort them out – to make a list of them and examine each one, one at a time, and come up with a course of action or a solution for each one individually. In this way, rather than become frustrated and hopeless about the enormity of the collective mess of difficulties, I can break it down into smaller, more manageable problems.
This skill of compartmentalizing problems definitely doesn’t come naturally to me. I tend to become overly emotional and overwhelmed when life gets stressful. This lesson of listing problems and solving them individually has helped me to manage my stress and become calmer and more productive over time.
Following the laundry analogy, another step I take before washing the clothes is to find the really tough stains and pretreat them with stain remover. Prioritizing the more urgent problems is the next step in the problem-solving strategy. After making a list of tasks or problems, we can prioritize the ones that need immediate attention and set to work solving them first. Then we can move on to the less urgent needs of our families. The more difficult problems often require more time and effort, like the tougher stains.
Scripture tells us to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”(Phil 4:6-7) This is not always easy to do. We often worry when we feel out of control of a situation. Jesus repeatedly offered his disciples peace and told them to be not afraid. He offers us the same peace and freedom from fear if only we learn to trust in him and to give up trying to control every aspect of our lives. As St. Pio of Pietrelcina advises us, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
Jesus never promised that the vocation of motherhood would be without challenges and problems. However, he did promise to remain with us and help us through any difficulties that arise. He gives us our husbands to help and guide us in our journey as mothers. I am thankful that my husband always provides me with a helpful analogy, or even a hug and a kind word, when I need one. I know with his help, and the help of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, and the saints, I can sort through all of the difficulties of family life and conquer any challenges that arise.