Lessons in Love: Cupcakes and Mercy

I’ve been trying to live my vocation as a mother more purposefully. This morning I was praying, “Lord, show me how to be a better mother to my children. Help me to listen to you when you present us with opportunities for growth. Help me to be present with them in the way they need me to be. Let me be like a reed in the wind, moving the way in which you want me to move, bowing to your touch.”

As I drank my coffee, I thought about my day and the things I needed to accomplish. I had it all planned out. My list was long but I thought I might be able to get through most of the items on my list if I really managed my time well.

Or not.

Because as I was reviewing the things that I needed to get done, my son, who is really pumped up about the fact that I told him he’s now old enough to cook whatever he wants, decided he was going to make cupcakes.

Everyone knows what delightful little bites cupcakes are, but boy, are they a mess to make…and, it takes time to make them…time that I hadn’t factored into the schedule for the day.

My mind returned to my morning prayer, “Let me be like a reed in the wind…” Flexibility is not always my strong suit. I have to constantly wrap my head around things that don’t fit my plan and remind myself that it’s God’s plan – not mine. So, I wrangled with the fact that cupcake making was not on my list and helping him make them would mean that I certainly would not finish my list today.

We had a great time making the cupcakes and whipping up the frosting.

Then, without a moment’s notice, the blissful cooking bubble popped. My son disappeared for a moment and started yelling that his brother ate all of the candy from his bag. They had divided up a bag of candy yesterday and his brother had eaten both bags. He stomped back into the kitchen yelling that his brother would not be getting any cupcakes because he had already had enough sugar.

“OK. Calm down,” I said. The word “mercy” popped into my head.

“I know your brother doesn’t deserve cupcakes because what he did was wrong. He knew he shouldn’t have eaten your candy but he did anyway. But, you love him right? Have you learned about mercy in school?” I said.

“Yes,” he grumbled, under his breath.

“Giving him a cupcake even when he doesn’t deserve it is actually showing him mercy,” I said. “It’s kind of like when we sin. We know we shouldn’t do it and we do it anyway. Then we feel really bad. Then we go to confession and feel better because God forgives us – even though we don’t really deserve it. He forgives us because he really loves us, right?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. Still not totally convinced.

“If you share a cupcake with him, you get to show mercy,” I said. “You are showing him that you love him and forgive him even though he did something wrong.”

He perked up and started frosting the cupcakes. He started by putting one aside for his brother and then another and another. When his brother came in, he pointed to the plate full of cupcakes and said, “look at all of the cupcakes I made for you!”

His brother was both humbled and grateful.

It was a “teachable moment” that I could not have planned. The kids learned about God’s mercy, and had the opportunity to demonstrate and receive mercy.

I also learned, yet again, that God is ready and willing to answer our prayers, but that we’ve got to give Him room to move – we’ve gotta wrangle the will (lists included!) and hand it all over to Him.  I’m reminded, time and time again, that it’s in those moments when we give it to Him, that we are given more than we could ever plan. As Blessed Mother Teresa used to put it, “He will fulfill it if I don’t put any obstacles in His way!”

 

cupcakes and mercy 1

The school of Christ is the school of love. In the last day, when the general examination takes place…Love will be the whole syllabus.”  – St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ

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I was really not into Lent…

For years, I really was not into Lent. It was a sad time. I really just wanted to fast-forward through those forty days and get on to Easter.

A few years ago though, I was on a “purposeful living” kick. I was attempting to be present in each moment. As we entered Lent, I realized I would have to be present in Lent. So, I prayed that I might be able to accompany Jesus in His suffering that Lent. I resolved to live Lent purposefully – to be present with Him in His pain.

In my prayer I envisioned myself crouched down, ready to receive a football – I said “all right, I’m ready. I can take it. I’m with you, Jesus.”

You know that old adage, “be careful what you wish for because you might just get it?” Ooh. Let me tell you, be careful what you pray for too because you may just get it – and more.

What was I thinking? 

It was the hardest Lent of my life. Every kind of hardship, difficulty, and temptation arose. At one point, I wondered why I even believed in God – a concept that previously would have been completely foreign to me. All kinds of things arose, one after the other – like a barrage of cannonballs – and I felt like I just wasn’t strong enough to handle them. I prayed, “Oh God, I think I prayed the wrong thing. I’m really sorry. Can you take it all away? I think I’m not strong enough to do this Lent thing with you.”

After coming clean with God about my complete and utter spiritual wimpiness, I opened a prayer book to the Anima Christi prayer. I had seen the prayer before, but this time it seemed to jump off the page at me. I resolved to pray it every time a difficulty arose. Things got easier. It became my “go to” prayer that Lent. In fact, it became one of my favorite “go to” prayers of all time.

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ANIMA Christi, sanctifica me. Corpus Christi, salva me. Sanguis Christi, inebria me. Aqua lateris Christi, lava me. Passio Christi, conforta me. O Bone Iesu, exaudi me. Intra tua vulnera absconde me. Ne permittas me separari a te. Ab hoste maligno defende me. In hora mortis meae voca me. Et iube me venire ad te, Ut cum Sanctis tuis laudem te in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

SOUL of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus, hear me. Within Thy wounds, hide me. Suffer me not to be separated from Thee. From the malicious enemy, defend me. In the hour of my death, call me. and bid me come unto Thee, that with thy saints I may may praise Thee for ever and ever. Amen.

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The more I prayed this prayer, the stronger I felt. The more I prayed it, the more I realized too that the Christian faith is less about taking things upon ourselves than handing them over to Jesus. He already suffered for us. We need to trust that He has suffered perfectly and hand every trouble and every difficulty over to Him. In all things, we are made strong in him – not by our own power – but though His sacrifice.

Yes, He wants our presence, we remember him asking his disciples to wait and stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane. He has already done the suffering and dying though. He wants to give us Easter.

This realization was a transformative moment in my faith journey. Everything became easier, I felt lighter. The hardships, difficulties, and temptations still kept coming at me, but they didn’t rattle me. I felt grounded in Him because I was both painfully aware of my own limitations and also wonderfully aware of His complete abilities. Praying this prayer led to a gift that I couldn’t have prayed for – an unshakable confidence in Him.

During that same time, I came across a musical setting of the Anima Christi by composer Msgr. Marco Frisina of the Diocese of Rome. The harmonies are gorgeous and it remains, to this day, one of my favorite pieces.  Truly, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Having studied classical and liturgical music myself, I have come to regard Frisina as one of my favorite composers of the modern era.

So, before a recent trip to Rome, I remarked to a friend, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow I could hear some of Frisina’s music while I was there?” It was a completely “blue sky” thought – a totally unlikely happenstance.

The fact is though, God always speaks the language of our hearts – and He happens to know what’s in them too.

While attending Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, I heard familiar harmonies. I whispered to the woman standing to my right, “Isn’t that Marco Frisina?” “Si,” she replied. There was Msgr. Marco Frisina himself conducting the Anima Christi. Tears welled up in my eyes. I had prayed to accompany Jesus through Lent that year and found strength through this prayer. Now, I was sitting next to the composer, conducting a live performance, of this most beautiful setting of this prayer. It was like a gift just for me. Only God knew what I had prayed, and only He could know what an incredible gift it would be for me to hear this prayer that had been pivotal in my faith journey, in live performance, while sitting right next to the composer. It was a gift beyond words.

At that moment, I realized more than ever before, that God hears each one of our prayers. Each one of us is loved. Each one of us is cherished. He loves us so much that He wants to fulfill even the deepest desires of our hearts.

I sat there with tears streaming down, completely overwhelmed by His love.

As we enter this Holy Week, let us realize that this Love is offered to each one of us – He waits for us to come to Him so that He can give us His love.

As we contemplate His ultimate sacrifice this week, let us remember that we have nothing to lose in going to Him except our own suffering, pains, and troubles. We can accompany Him, and in the silence of our hearts, lay down our burdens at the foot of the cross.

Believe me, there is no better offer.

Setting of Anima Christi by Msgr. Marco Frisina, Performed by Choir of the Diocese of Rome

God and the VIP Treatment

So I went to my local coffee shop to get a coffee this morning. I paid and my number was immediately called. The funny thing was, there was a line of ten people in front of me waiting for their coffee too. As I came from the back of the line and was handed my coffee, those still waiting looked at me as if wondering how I “cut the line” and got such VIP service.

I kind of wondered too, given that I don’t have a VIP coffee card.

I do know though, that every time I walk into this place, they look happy to see me. Even when I’m in a pre-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, unbrushed-hair kind of state. It’s kind of like Norm on “Cheers.” They are always so animated in their greetings as I enter.

I thought about this as I walked out clutching my warm cup. It brought to mind the word “mercy” – God’s mercy. A timely thought, I suppose, given that Pope Francis just declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.”

It has taken me a long time to figure out what the word “mercy” means. For a long time, it was a kind of obtuse term that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. I could only understand it in the sense of a king pardoning a subject.

I remember actually researching what the word meant. I read that you can exchange the word “mercy” with “God’s love” and it means about the same thing. As I read this definition though, I thought, well then why don’t we just write “God’s love”? Why do we still have a word “mercy”? There’s got to be more to it.

I think there is more to it. I’m slowly starting to understand what mercy means but I think understanding comes from experience of it. Mercy has to do with God’s action towards us because of His love for us. With God, every single one of us receives VIP treatment – whether we are in fact a VIP or a person that the world would view as a most unimportant person. St. Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” We are all loved completely by God – all desired completely by Him. We are all VIP’s to God.

Mercy is like that excited greeting, that VIP treatment, that gets us to the front of the line for no reason.  We don’t need to have done everything exactly right, we don’t even need to have waited our turn. We can go to God as we are, a complete mess, and He’s just as excited to see us as if every hair were perfectly in place. When he sees us coming he is overjoyed to see us – he rushes to greet us at the end of the line. Pope Francis says, “God does not wait for us to go toward Him but it is He who moves toward us.”

Pope Francis also said, “God always thinks mercifully.” That’s because God operates out of love. We operate out of our own sense of what we think the order ought to be – but God’s ways are above our ways. We might be standing at the back of the line saying, “I have to wait my turn,” but God may pick us out and say “I choose you now.” It is we that need to open our minds to God and allow Him to work in the ways that He works – which always surpasses our own human sense of reason.

Pope Francis, who can talk endlessly about God’s love and mercy, also said,  “The Lord is always there waiting to give us His love; it is an amazing thing, one which never ceases to amaze me!…He is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him.”

Go to Him.

Let Him give you the VIP treatment.

 

“God always forgives us.  He never tires of this.  It’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.  But He does not tire of pardoning us.” – Pope Francis

Sun-baked thoughts of Mermaids and The Magdalen

As I sat by the shore, warm sand underfoot, cool waves misting before me, my mind started to wander to the blue horizon.  Perhaps it was a recent game of pirate-themed, mini-golf that led to thoughts of mermaids in the sea…mermaids with long and beautiful hair.  Thoughts of long and beautiful hair led to thoughts of Mary Magdalene – who’s feast day was celebrated last month.

The story of Mary Magdalene has always disturbed me a little.  I have always gotten hung-up on the fact that she dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.  It seems so impractical.  Why not take a nice, clean, linen cloth? Much more absorbent.  Why the hair?

So, as I sat on the beach, I resolved to sit with the story of Mary Magdalene and try to get beyond the hair.  I decided to employ the Ignatian practice of imagining myself in the Gospel scene so as to try to understand more about what it really is that we are to learn from this story.

I imagined myself there with the apostles who had just eaten dinner with Jesus.  They were wary of this woman who had come into the home. She was known, after all, as having been completely sinful (having seven sins – seven representing completeness in Judaic tradition).  They did not want Jesus’ name to be tarnished by any association with this sinful woman.

So, as she approached Jesus, the apostles tried to stop her.  Jesus, however, held them back and allowed her to approach.  How interesting it must have been to be with Jesus, and maybe a little frustrating for his disciples too – he was always breaking with tradition and doing the unexpected!

She was a beautiful woman with a shapely figure and long, dark locks of hair.  She approached Jesus and brought before him the two things that she may have put treasure in – her beautiful hair and her perfume. Overcome by emotion, her tears fell onto his feet.  She dried his feet with that very part of herself that may have brought her pride and may have also caused temptation. And he allowed her to bring those two things that may have caused her to sin, to his feet, and he allowed her to give them to him.

When she entered the home, he already knew everything about her.  He knew her struggles. He didn’t shy away. Instead, he allowed this woman, who had previously been forced to live on the periphery, this woman who dared to approach him, to touch his Holy feet.

When Judas berated her for “wasting” her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Jesus came to her defense.  Why?  Because he knew that her intention was pure.  Judas’ was not.  He wanted to steal the money from the sale of the perfume.  She wanted to give Jesus all that she had.  She was operating out of love, Judas was not.

So we see in Mary of Magdalene an offering of the whole self – the good, bad, and the ugly- a suspice offering.  The required precondition of this offering being that she overcome her own feelings of shame and abandon her pride and sinfulness and trust completely and confidently in Christ.

And Jesus loved her for this.  He did not judge – as did the disciples around him – who were still learning. He accepted her offering and offered her His love and a new life without stigma in return. A life without fear.  A life of peace.

The story of Mary Magdalene is a story of love and of relationship.  Mary’s is a brave love – a love brave enough to approach Christ himself, painfully aware of her own sinful state. And, hers is a confident love – a love confident in the redeeming love of her savior.

And, it is a story of a God who desires to live in relationship with each individual person – not a nebulous relationship – but a real, life-giving relationship.  Ours is an approachable God who cares to receive our offerings of self and reciprocates with a love greater than we could imagine. A God who offers a redeeming love that restores dignity to the brokenness of each individual person.  A God who offers a beautiful relationship that makes those who enter into it, like Mary Magdalene, become – healthy, strong, and truly free. And, it is a love that brings unspeakable joy and peace.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently to this relationship in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew (Evangelii Gaudium 3).”

The story of Mary Magdalene does not end here though.  At the resurrection, it was not the apostles, but Mary Magdalene who first saw the Risen Christ. It was she, who was entrusted with the duty of going out and telling the apostles that Christ had risen. Healed by Jesus – brought to wholeness – and perhaps chosen because she had known great brokenness herself, it was this woman, that Christ first chose to spread the good news to broken humankind.

Pope Francis reminds us that when we accept the gift of Christ’s transforming love, we too will be called to go out and share this love. “Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others.  As it expands, goodness takes root and develops.  If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good (Evangelii Gaudium 9).”

Through the person of Mary Magdalene, we are invited to relationship with Christ. And through her example, we are called to announce the Good News to every periphery, to approach those liminal situations and to draw upon our healed-woundedness to connect with the Mary Magdalene’s of today. We are called to connect with those in situations that make us uncomfortable –  to let go of fear and to approach in love. We are called to extend that hand, to offer the ear, the touch, the love, that heals.

(Click hyperlink below to listen)

https://www.google.com/#q=youtube+beautiful+beautiful+francesca+battistelli

“Beautiful, Beautiful” – Francesca Battistelli

2013: An Extraordinary Year

As I sit by the tree and review my journal, I realize what an extraordinary year 2013 has been for my family.

I have no lists of accomplishments to present. I’m sure there were some, but that’s not what strikes me about this year.

In April, on the eve of my birthday, my mother called and told me she had cancer. Less than two months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer also.

Interestingly, for over a year before my parents’ diagnoses, I had felt God’s constant and close presence. Not just in prayer, it was a constant, and I just knew I wasn’t alone. I wondered many times why I felt His presence so closely.

In retrospect, as I look back over year, I see that this awareness of His presence was an answer to one of my long-time prayers that when my parents’ “time came,” He would give me the strength to get through it. Indeed, I had incredible strength, peace, and presence of mind that was far beyond anything I could have gathered from within myself this year.

My mother’s surgery in June was extremely high risk. The doctors thought it would be a long surgery with many complications – if she made it through.

I prayed with a confidence instilled by this Presence. And, I asked everyone I knew everywhere, and everyone they knew to pray for my parents. I also asked all of my favorite saints to intercede too.

So here’s what happened. My mother made it through the surgery in an hour and fifty minutes instead of the maximum of five hours they had allowed for the operation. She was off the ventilator within two hours instead of two days. The surgeon was able to do the surgery laparoscopically instead of the full open abdominal surgery he was fearing he would have to do. And, she went home the next morning at 11 am instead of going to short term rehab for weeks.

It was so funny when the doctor came out of the OR – he looked so surprised at the outcome. He said “he just couldn’t believe how well it went.”

My mother had just three sessions of radiation to ensure that all of the cancer was gone and has been declared cancer-free.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later, the doctors gave him weeks to live. It was an aggressive cancer and a huge tumor. The risks were so high that he couldn’t even find a doctor to operate.

Then, a doctor came along visiting his ENT office and said he would go ahead and try the surgery. “What was there to lose?” he said. He scheduled the surgery for the fourth week in August.

The third week in August, a week before my father’s surgery, my son had an appointment with his neurologist. At age 3, he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. At age 6, he had been diagnosed with dyslexia. At this appoinment, we would hear the the results of his yearly EEG (a test of electrical activity in the brain). I expected to hear the same results we had been hearing for the past five years. I expected to receive a couple of prescriptions for anti-seizure medication and I had the “Seizure Action Plan” school paperwork ready for him to sign.

The neurologist sat us down and told us he had the results from the EEG. Without much ado he said, “there is no abnormal electrical activity on his scan.” I was floored. “What?”, I said. “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.” Those were his exact words.

The funny thing was, I had just been saying in prayer the night before, “you know, Lord, I really believe you can heal him. I’ve been praying for five years for this. I know you can, so why haven’t you?” Then I prayed and asked Padre Pio to intercede. “I know that He can do it, can you please ask Him to heal my son?”

And, the next day, the doctor said, without any ado at all really – “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.”

I wanted to cry and do a jig at the same time.

I also wanted to go to adoration and drop flat on my face and say, “Thank you, God!” And that’s exactly what I did that night.

A week later, my father underwent surgery for the huge Sarcoma in his head. My father’s surgery was difficult. He teetered on the edge of death for two weeks in the hospital.

The whole time, I continued to ask everyone I knew to pray. Deep down, I knew he was going to be ok though.

Three weeks later the biopsy came back on his tumor. What had been a huge sarcoma was now classified as “pre-cancerous.” He needed no chemotherapy or radiation therapy at all.

This time around, I wasn’t at all surprised.

The next week, I touched base with my son’s speech and reading therapist who had been helping him with his dyslexia. She recommended that we stop seeing her because she said she saw no need at all for her services anymore. His speech was perfect and he was reading and comprehending above grade level. He scored 98% on reading comprehension of the standardized tests. Today, he is at the top of his class. He just got a big award for reading – only the third in his class of 18 to get this award.

So, as we wrap up the year, here are my conclusions based on my “Year in Review:”

1. There is true power in prayer
2. God is really present and hearing our prayers
3. Miracles can and do happen

1. There is real and true power in prayer

I have been proud. Like many people, I have prayed only when up against the wall. And, in all honesty, I have to tell you, I was a doubter. I generally need to see data or at least a “track record” to believe. I weigh the data and then come to a logical decision.

Well, I’ve got my data, I’ve got my “track record,” and I believe. I wish I wasn’t a “doubting Thomas” but I am so glad He “met where I was at.”

So many times I have said, “I’ll pray for you,” when I didn’t actually have time to do anything for someone. Praying seemed too easy. I felt like physical labor must be required to actually help someone. Don’t get me wrong – offers of physical labor can be extremely helpful – cooking a meal, offering childcare, running errands, etc. Now though, I realize that praying is actually really helpful too. It’s not a matter of – “well, all we can do now is pray.” It is the first and last thing we should be doing and it’s way more helpful than any help I could offer because it calls down the God of all creation to help out the person who needs help. What could be more helpful?

The saints knew this. All of them spoke about the power of prayer. St. John of the Cross said, “In all our necessities, trials, and difficulties, no better or safer aid exists for us than prayer and hope that God will provide for us by the means He desires.”

The twentieth century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, succinctly sums up the power of prayer. “By leaving everything in God’s hands, the love that bears all things carries us further, it achieves more in the extreme suffering of not “being able to go on any further” than in potent, self-assured action.”

2. God is really present and hearing our prayers

Who, at times, hasn’t asked in prayer, “God are you really there? Can you hear me?”

Throughout the bible, we hear people wondering if God is there and if he is hearing their prayers. In Psalm 22, David says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Even Jesus, on the cross, says the very same thing (Matt 27:46).

After this year, I can’t doubt that God has heard my prayers and the prayers of everyone I asked to pray during these ordeals. God isn’t a figment of the imagination or a literary figure of the past. God is real and present and hears my prayers.

It wasn’t just my prayers though. There were people praying all over the world for my parents. Dozens of priests were praying and offering prayers and masses – in at least 8 states, in London, and at Lourdes. I’ve heard also that people from all over the US were praying as well as people from France, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Brazil, The Philippines, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Burundi.

My friend Marcia, said her mother from Brazil was on a pilgrimage and was praying in a small church in Italy and thought of my mother so she started praying for her. She called Marcia and asked when the surgery would be. It turned out that she thought of my mother and was praying at the exact time that my mother was in surgery.

Over the past few months, my co-workers, who are from all corners of the globe, have asked many times how my parents were doing. They have said that they even had their families “back home” praying for my parensts. As I recount to them how well my parents are doing, almost every person I’ve told has said “praised be to God” in their own language…Arabic, Kurundi, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc. My colleagues also come from many different faith traditions. It struck me that Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and followers of even more religions around the world were all praying for an intention together and praising God. Isn’t that beautiful?

3. Miracles can and do happen

I can’t deny that what happened in my family this year was miraculous. My mother’s doctors, my father’s doctors, and my son’s doctor were all surprised. The outcomes were not at all what they expected. They can’t scientifically explain why things turned out the way they did.

I have great confidence that, if it’s God’s will, he will perform miracles if asked. I do not think miracles are meant to be extraordinary occurences because Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt 21:22).

St. Augustine said, “God is not a deceiver that he should offer to support us and then, when we lean upon him, should slip away.”

Our hopes and prayers our limited by our own finite nature but God is infinite and omnipotent. We would do well to expand our expectations of God beyond the box of our limited minds. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had very little formal education but was granted the grace of great knowledge of God said, “We can never have too much confidence in God; as we hope in him so shall we receive.

St. Patrick too, a victim of human trafficking and a man who knew a lot about suffering and miracles, said, “Turn trustingly to the Lord. Put your faith in him with your whole heart, because nothing is impossible to him.

In fact, every saint seems to know this secret that we are apt to forget – God offers all of us infinite love every moment of our lives and, included in this love, is the well-being of all we hold dear. For our part, we need to trust him – drop all defenses and completely trust him. When we “drop our defenses,” it enables us to see God’s love in action outside and above the finite projections we had for the outcomes of each situation. God’s love is always there for the taking. It is we who reject it, or limit it, or just can’t recognize it. Just think – we could be living in this love every single moment if we so choose.

So, as I look back at this extraordinary year, my “takeaway” is that, going forward, I’m not going to worry. I’m going to bring it to God in trust and actually trust him. I know, deep in my bones, that He’ll take care of it and it will all work out the way it should. I’m going to heed Padre Pio’s words – “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!”