In the Desert with Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Mount Carmel – Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay 

During this time of being largely homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have had to field complaints of, “Mom, I’m bored!” from restless children. The adults in the family have probably experienced some cabin fever as well. With no family gatherings, sporting events, and other of the usual forms of daily activity and entertainment, it has taken some getting used to the “new normal” for many of us. You could say the experience has seemed somewhat like being in a desert – barren, desolate, and empty at times. Some of us may feel like we’ve been stranded in this dry, arid desert without much comfort. Many would consider time in a desert as being fruitless because of the isolation and lack of activity; however, it depends on how you look at it.

With the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel approaching on July 16, we are reminded of those religious around the world who have devoted themselves to a life of prayer and sacrifice in the “desert” of Carmel. They have given up many of the pleasures and comforts of the world in order to follow God more closely and to hear his voice. The first Carmelites were hermits on Mount Carmel beginning in the 12th and into the 13th Centuries. They dwelt on the mountain, inspired by the Old Testament Prophet Elijah, who prayed, fasted, and witnessed to God by performing a miracle before the worshipers of the false god Baal. Elijah and the early hermits on Mount Carmel were willing to leave the world and sacrifice everything in pursuit of holiness and union with God. Elijah proclaimed in  1 Kings 19:10, “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.” Carmelites today continue in the spirit and tradition of Elijah as they intercede for the world through prayer, fasting, and sacrifice.

Though we as lay people are not called to the vows and lifestyle of Carmelites, we can learn from their simple and sacrificial way of life. With many of our activities cancelled and having to spend much more time at home because of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to use this time to deepen our faith and prayer life. Even five or ten minutes a day is a good place to start. Some methods of prayer we can incorporate into our daily routine at home include reciting the Rosary alone or with family or friends, reading and reflecting on the daily readings and other spiritual reading, or reciting the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy at three o’clock in honor of the hour that Jesus died. Being in the “desert” of this pandemic is an ideal place to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, which often comes to us when we slow down and allow ourselves to experience silence and solitude.

Now more than ever the world needs saints, and we are all called to strive to attain this goal. Whether our days are spent at a desk, working with our hands in manual labor, or at home raising children, or whatever our vocation entails, each of us is called and is capable of becoming the person God wants us to be. This time of pandemic is not a waste of time. Rather, we can offer up any suffering, anxiety, or inconveniences which it has caused us as a sacrifice to Jesus, and we can use the experience wisely by growing in holiness and deepening our prayer life, and especially by calling on our Mother of Mount Carmel to help us.

The Novena to Our Lady of Mount Carmel begins on July 8 and ends on the feast day, July 16. One way to join in the novena is to receive email reminders from Pray More Novenas by signing up here. Let’s beg Our Mother the Queen of Carmel to intercede for us with God for our individual and collective needs and petitions by praying the novena together.

God Bless You!

George Floyd and the Greatest Commandment

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

We probably all thought the year 2020 would be forever remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic alone; however, the focus was shifted on May 25, 2020, with the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, caught on video, by a police officer while three other officers stood nearby. Protests, followed by nights of looting, burning, and violence, ensued in cities across the nation. Cries of racism and police brutality have been met with impassioned reactions from all sides. How are we, as Christians, called to respond to the situation which has developed in our nation?

Today’s gospel message can help us to know where to begin when faced with issues such as racism and how to address it. We are all called to follow the ‘greatest commandment,’ which Jesus made clear when questioned by the one of the scribes. In response to the scribe’s request to know the “first of all the commandments,” Jesus responded:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31)

In all our undertakings, Jesus declares, we are to love God and others. To be fruitful and productive, compassion and understanding must preface any attempts at dialogue and discussion about racism. Each side must humbly admit its mistakes and imperfections in order to work toward a peaceful resolution to differences and prejudices.

There are inadequacies on both sides of the race issue. White Americans must admit that there are vestiges of racism still present within our society. There is more that we can do to create opportunities and help break cycles of poverty and dysfunction which unfortunately exist in many African American communities. Loving others as Jesus instructs us to involves attentively listening to the grievances of these communities and working toward solutions to remedy the problems which exist within them. If each of us examines our own heart, we may find traces of prejudice and lack of charity and understanding toward our brothers and sisters of color that we have overlooked or not acknowledged.

There are problems on the side of the protesters as well. Certainly, racism exists in certain individuals and groups; however, the solution to the problem is not to react with violence or lawlessness, but with love and forgiveness. It is necessary to peacefully call attention to the problem, but to do so in a lawful and appropriate manner, respecting God’s laws and civil authority.

African-American conservative commentator and political activist Candace Owens, in a recent YouTube video, expressed her passionate disappointment in the Black community for “demand[ing] support and justice for the people in our community that are up to no good.” While reiterating that the actions of the officers involved in George Floyd’s death are inexcusable and that they should face justice, Owens also rejected the attempt to elevate Floyd to a “martyr for black America,” citing his criminal record from the past and the evidence that he had not fully reformed at the time of his arrest. Owens urges African-Americans, instead, to work toward personal accountability and to improve the situation through peaceful means.

Beginning with humility, we can move toward loving one another and forgiving past transgressions. Loving God and loving neighbor can only sincerely occur when preceded and accompanied by faith and prayer. The path to a greater, more peaceful world begins in the heart of each individual. When we allow ourselves to be changed and transformed by God through prayer and the sacraments, then we can proceed to go out and change the world around us for the better.

“Why Are You Afraid? Have You No Faith?” – Pope Francis’ Message to the World

Christ in the Storm
Heinrich Jansen
Danish, 1625-1667

During his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing delivered today, March 27, Pope Francis stood facing a nearly-empty St. Peter’s Square, indicative of the strange and unprecedented situation we find our world in during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our streets and businesses are, similarly, largely vacant, void of life and activity, as we have retreated to our homes to try and stifle the spread of the deadly virus. 

The Holy Father, however, offered hope to the world during the period of scripture, petition, and adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as prayers before a miraculous crucifix and an act of entrusting the world to the care and protection of our Blessed Mother.  The hour of prayer concluded with the Urbi et Orbi blessing, Latin for ‘to the city and the world,’ which is ordinarily given only at Christmas and Easter and upon the election of a new pope as his first blessing.  The blessing carried with it the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence for the faithful who participated by viewing the service through the media or online. 

The Holy Father compared the anxiety that many are experiencing about the virus to the disciples’ fear in the fourth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel, when Jesus was asleep in the boat as a storm came up, frightening them and causing them to worry and doubt.  “Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other,” he said.  The analogy of the boat brings to mind the Church, separated by distance, but unified in mind and spirit and united in prayer and petition for an end to the pandemic and for peace and health for all.  In this time of uncertainty, we are like the disciples, fearful and afraid, and we are apart, yet together in the Body of Christ.  He is our head, guiding and steering this vessel, the Church, even during the turbulent storms of life when they come. 

Perhaps the most significant and resounding line in the gospel passage is Jesus’ question to his disciples that he addresses to us as well, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (v. 40).  The Holy Father emphasized these words and how Jesus directs them to us, in the situation we face today.  He continued, “Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

“Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation,” Pope Francis declared. The Holy Father’s words should call us to repentance and encourage us to recognize the ways we have failed to follow the gospel values in our own lives. During this period of Lent, when we are facing a global pandemic which affects us all, we are given the opportunity to humbly admit our faults and failings and allow our hearts to be converted and recommitted to Jesus. We remember the words of Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, which declares, “a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn,” and we have hope that the Lord will hear our prayers if they are offered humbly and sincerely.  Pope Francis reminded us that this is “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”

The Holy Father encouraged us to “invite Jesus into the boats of our lives,” and to “hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them.”  He reminded us that, “Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”

He also emphasized the call to have hope in these desperate and often desolate times and to remember the Easter promise that, “He is risen and is living by our side.” He concluded his remarks with these words of petition:

“Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet. 5:7).

COVID-19: In the Desert with Jesus

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Because of the current situation of the COVID 19 global pandemic, we find ourselves in unique and uncharted territory. Schools and activities are cancelled and we are called to stay home as much as possible and avoid social gatherings, or, as it is called, to practice “social distancing.” For some, this may feel new and strange. For others, it is a way of life. Many religious monks and nuns live secluded and isolated lives, separate and sheltered from the noise and chaos of the rest of the world. For those who have experienced this type of life, you know that it can lead to immense peace and oneness with God, and that those who live cloistered or monastic lives often are some of the happiest and most content people.

We can look at this temporary situation of imposed isolation and seclusion as a great blessing and a means to deepen our own spiritual lives and our relationships with God and our families. Free from the distractions of unnecessary gatherings and activities, we can focus our attention inward and get in touch with God speaking in our hearts. For those of us lay people who ordinarily live, work, and play in the world, it is often difficult to “hear” God speaking in our hearts because his voice is drowned out by the noise and chatter around us. The blessing of the situation we find ourselves in now is that the unnecessary and extraneous activity has been taken away, and we find ourselves in a sort of a “desert” in our homes where there is more peace and silence. If we use this time wisely, spending time in prayer and reflection, we can learn to listen more fully to God and grow in love for him.

Deserts are hot, dry, and sparse and can be very uncomfortable. The circumstances we are in now may be uncomfortable and inconvenient to some. It may feel boring or empty to some without the entertainment and activities that we are used to. However, we should remember that Jesus himself spent 40 days in the desert, where he fasted and was tempted by the devil. We can unite our own sacrifices and prayers during this time with his, and offer them to the Father for ourselves and for all those who are or will be directly affected by the coronavirus. As Catholics, we are familiar with the phrase “offer it up” and now is a perfect time to do just that for the good of the Church, the world, and those affected by this pandemic.

Remembering that we are, indeed, in the middle of Lent, we are provided with a perfect opportunity to use this time as a sort of “retreat” and make some time each day for prayer and spiritual reading or reflection. We can engage in spiritual reading to learn more about our faith and to give us food for reflection. Praying the Rosary as a family and viewing the Mass which is being streamed for us by many sources online, along with making a spiritual communion, are ways we can maintain our devotion and even grow in our faith during this time. By making efforts to grow in the faith, we learn to recognize the Holy Spirit moving in our lives and we come to know Jesus more fully.

Being in the desert can be very productive, as God can prune away our faults and sins and change our hearts during this time. The experience can be a great blessing if we imitate Jesus and continue to fast and pray throughout this period. If we continue to endeavor to pray, fast, and give alms throughout this Lent, we will experience the Easter joy in our homes and hearts, and hopefully we will be able to celebrate once again the Eucharist on Easter Sunday in our communities. Let’s pray that this virus will be subdued and that by Easter we can gather together again in thanksgiving and joy.

Corona Confusion? Don’t Forget to Stop and Smell the Flowers

Everyone I know is tying to make sense of the corona hysteria and see how we can all make the best of it. In the confusion of the situation we are currently facing, how can we avoid fear and panic and, instead, maintain peace and tranquility? I think that we have two choices of how we can react to this unusual and uncertain situation. We can either view it as an inconvenient burden and complain and be upset about it, or we can see it as an opportunity to grow in love of God and charity for one another. I am certain that adopting the second attitude will be the most positive and peace-filled choice. What are some ways we can make the best of the corona situation and even see the good in it and draw out some positives from it?

  1. Slow down and unplug. If we are constantly immersing ourselves in media reports and messages and continually engaged in the social media frenzy of corona-related jokes and opinions, we are tempted to get caught up in the noise and confusion, which can lead to anger or fear. Instead, I am trying to remember not to overdo the exposure to news and social media, and, instead, to remember to spend time doing things I enjoy and that help my family and I to remain calm and happy. My children are helping me to remember this, as, after school today my oldest daughter noticed some wildflowers growing on the school campus and asked if she and her sister could spend a few minutes picking them before going home. She literally reminded me that we have to stop and smell the flowers in order to not get sucked into feelings of apprehension about what is going on around us. We must continue to live our lives and have peace and confidence that “this too shall pass.”
  2. Spend quality time with family. With all of the cancellations of school, sporting events, and other public gatherings, the hidden blessing is the extra time we are given to spend with our children. Rather than see these changes as an inconvenience, it would be helpful to look on the bright side and see the additional precious moments we can enjoy with them. I have always believed that many of us are living our lives too fast, running here and there engaged in too many activities and missing out on the simple times of just enjoying our children and time spent at home, playing board or card games, preparing meals together, and just conversing with them. Now is a perfect time, as we will all be a little less busy in the coming days and weeks.
  3. Take time for prayer. If not so much for ourselves, many people who have contracted or will contract the illness need our prayer support now. Remembering that we, after all, are in the season of Lent, we can see this as an opportunity to carry the Cross with Jesus and to offer up our inconveniences (like toilet paper shortages!) and difficulties as Lenten sacrifices. As of now, our churches are still open and Masses are still being said. We can continue to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, and go to Adoration if possible.
  4. Thank God for the blessings in life. Right now, if we are healthy, we should give thanks to God for the gift of good health. If we are always remembering that this life is temporary, we will never be surprised when confronted with our mortality in situations like this, and we will be ready for whatever comes our way and won’t succumb to fear and panic. A good question to remember is, “What if you woke up with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” Being grateful leads to happiness in any situation and can help us live more joyful and healthy lives.
  5. Be good stewards of the gifts God has given us and nurture them: health, well-being, family, friends. Since God has been so generous to us in this country, we should take care of our bodies, our homes, and our environment and do our best to preserve them. Like the wise servant in the gospel Parable of the Talents who increased the five talents given to him by his master, we should also be prudent and careful to use our abilities to serve God and build up his Kingdom.
  6. Help others who may not be as fortunate. Maybe someone you know is sick now, or maybe they will become ill with this virus and will need care or resources. Although many are advocating “social distancing,” we should continue to look out for and reach out to one another, especially in difficult times like this. We are called to live in community, and must pull together, especially now.

St. Teresa’s Bookmark contains wonderfully consoling and fitting words for us today:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

Gethsemane and Advent – Preparing Our Hearts through Prayer and Fasting

Image by falco from Pixabay

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.

Being Simon to Others

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“As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.”

Matthew 27:32

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?