Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but the feast of Epiphany still burns bright.

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets. 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts. 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”  

Feast of Elizabeth Ann Seton—Jan. 4

The curved colonnade of the Watson house is unique in the Battery area of New York City. Where skyscrapers probe ramrod straight into the sky, this rounded, red brick colonial seems a quaint anachronism. Businesspeople in serious suits stride purposefully past it, while swarms of tourists move towards the Staten Island ferry. Yet this small place still holds some pulse of the city’s and country’s life. Once the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton in a fashionable neighborhood facing the Hudson River, it’s now the Church of the Holy Rosary, with a shrine to Seton at the back. She is rightly heralded as the first native-born American saint. Not a martyr, she lived instead with many heartbreaks: the deaths, before she was 4, of her mother and infant sister, then when she was 29, of her husband, and finally of two daughters as young girls. Late in life, she marveled that she had lived through it all.

Contemporary issues that would’ve interested her swirl around this small oasis in New York traffic. Immigration would’ve concerned her because when her husband William Seton sickened, the medical recommendation was that a few months in Italian sunshine would restore his health. Instead, the Seton party was confined to a lazaretto (a place like prison) because the Italians feared yellow fever. (He actually died of tuberculosis.) Once at the height of society, they quickly became the refugees.

International business thrives here. So too the Seton shipping company had commerce around the world. William had worked with the Filicchi family in Italy for two years learning the shipping business before he met Elizabeth. Interfaith dialogue, the ecumenical movement prompted by Vatican II might’ve amazed her, since her conversion made her an outcast of upper crust society. She agonized over the right path to God, believing there was only one. Many of her Episcopal friends and family rejected her, since Catholics were at the bottom of the social heap, but some friends remained faithful despite what they saw as folly.  

New trends in education? She would’ve gobbled them up, wanting nothing but the best for her students, whether they paid a small tuition or came “dutch,” free. In the early days of her first school, she’d study herself after classes ended at five o’clock, “stuffing her brain” with math and grammar to teach the next day.

The biographical details provide an outline: Born two years before the American Revolution, Betsey Bayley was the doctor’s petite and beautiful daughter, raised in privilege, but still lonely. His remarriage after her mother’s death and subsequently seven more children meant Elizabeth had to live with various relatives. When she met Will at age 16 and married him four years later, she wrote, “My own home at twenty—the world—that and heaven too, quite impossible!” The attractive couple were compatible in many ways: especially charming were duets with her playing the piano, and he the violin.

But the idyllic times were short-lived. They had five children in seven years, and Will’s shipping business began to fail. Elizabeth tried to help with accounts and her father gave money, but bankruptcy or debtor’s prison seemed inevitable. Then Will’s father died, and his own health failed. The solution, which most of their friends thought madness, was the Italian climate, voyaging with their oldest daughter Anna, leaving the four younger children with relatives. After forty days jailed in quarantine, Elizabeth wrote, “To be sent a thousand miles on so hopeless an errand…”

When Will died two days after Christmas, Elizabeth was left penniless, with five children under eight. But the church of Italy had a profound influence. After much agonizing and delay, Elizabeth became Catholic on March 25, 1805. Seton could easily be patron saint of single parenthood, financial anxiety, household drudgery, and bottomless grief. In early widowhood, she had to rely on the charity of others, but joy in her new-found faith seemed to carry her through the worst.

The only hope for the small family’s security came from the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. He wanted Elizabeth to start a school for girls. In fact, he had only two prospective students, his nieces. But he was a charming and persuasive Frenchman and she had nothing to lose.

Saying goodbye to New York City where she had been so happy, never to return, Elizabeth wrote, “can the heart swell so high and not burst?” Male clergy tried to force on her small group of women the French rule of the Daughters of Charity, but  Elizabeth was adamant that nothing should interfere with her “darlings,” her children, her first priority. Her early years in Maryland were difficult, with constant illness and death, squabbles with tyrannical clergy, tedious conflict over the rule and leadership, a grueling schedule, brutal cold, fleas, food shortages and uncertainty about the school. Always the leader, Elizabeth coped with it all, admitting, “Tribulation is my element.” Then her beautiful, 16-year old daughter Anna died of tuberculosis, followed soon after by her sister Rebecca.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s community was asked to staff orphanages in Philadelphia and New York, a ministry that would eventually expand to hospitals, schools and social services all over the country. As one sister predicted, their quiet work in a valley would “give such a roar one day that the noise will sound over all America.”

Seton could address many contemporary quandaries. Difficult teenagers? Her sons were “a thorn in the heart,” of whom she said, “what’s a parent to do but pray and dote?” Tedious housework? She shoveled snow off the children’s beds in Emmitsburg. Advocacy for the marginalized? She welcomed the first African-American students, and insisted on the education of girls, apparently deflecting questions about why they weren’t learning simply to embroider.

Her self-deprecating one-liners could out-quip Stephen Colbert. She called herself the “Old Lady,” who simply doled out affection. After founding what would become the American Catholic schools, she dismissed an arduous body of work: “A ruined carcass, bundled up in old shawls and flannels, I never do the least work of any kind.”

Her humor transcends eighteenth century piety; her mysticism resonates with the best of contemporary spirituality. When she had lost almost everything–husband, beloved sister-in-law, home, comforts, she wrote drily, “is Poverty and Sorrow the only exchange?… Well, with God’s blessing, you too will be changed into dearest friends.” That is the voice of the spacious soul, welcoming whatever comes, finding even in the worst surprises the mysterious presence of the Holy.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press,  800-858-5450.


Perhaps the challenge of the Christmas season is whether we can hear familiar stories and songs with wonder, not the yawn of “déjà vu.”  Our model might be the three-year old boy, who,  entering a vast, baroque cathedral for the first time at Christmas, seeing the trees, banners, huge statues, a jillion tiny white lights, glittering mosaics arching overhead into infinite space, breathed one word: “wow.” Can we allow the stories we’ve heard a thousand times—of a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, angels, shepherds and magi, to resonate at a deeper level this year? Can we attend with care to whatever God wants to birth in us during this season? As Eugene Ionesco warns, “over-explanation separates us from astonishment.” Perhaps the rest of the year can be cut-and-dried, but this is the season for mystery to flourish.

If ever we misperceived God as stingy or punitive, the scriptures of this season should correct that image, as God pours forth God’s self in the only Son, who begins his great adventure now. Like beautiful bells, the prophets foretell: something spectacular is on the way!

The psalms keep the focus where it belongs: on the praise of God, not on human predicaments nor flaws. They bring out today’s equivalent of the big brass band: lute and harp, the songs of forest, plains, earth and sea.  And limited human beings brush shoulders with angels as all sing God’s glory.

John’s letters after Christmas might startle those who spent their childhoods following the rules, pleasing authorities and winning awards. God gives everyone gold stars, an inestimable gift of adoption as God’s heirs that no one can deserve. This inheritance would fill us with confidence and gratitude if we weren’t numb to the implications. One response might be to break into the glad abandon of dance—or to carry that exuberance more quietly within. The season also celebrates saints who took the lavish promise seriously, raising the question, “Can I too believe that God delights in me?”

Fourth Sunday of Advent

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” During liturgies when we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion. As did Joseph in today’s reading from Matthew: maybe not understanding, but doing as the angel commanded in his dream.  

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.” Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

Notice the angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary: “Rejoice.” The baby in Elizabeth’s womb as she greets Mary “leaps for joy.” Let’s remember that tone this week, which can be one of the most hectic in the year. The angel says, “rejoice.” Not “spend. Clean. Cook. Decorate. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop again. Create the perfect holiday ambiance. Work to exhaustion. Make everyone in the family sublimely happy.”

As we do seasonal tasks this week, may we do them not as perfectionists, but with a mantra of gratitude and praise: “I get to do this. Let me do it all with thanks.”

A Tribute to Dolores Curran

We pause the Advent reflections to honor the death of a dynamic, ground-breaking woman, Dolores Curran.

At a time when the US Catholic church was dominated by priests and religious, she introduced the then-shocking notion that perhaps the laity might also play a part. In her ground-breaking book Who Me, Teach My Child Religion?, she suggested that the home was an arena for spirituality and that parents just might find God there in themselves and their children. In the family were “hearts of flesh” often not found in the sterile institutional “hearts of stone” that still can’t embrace the gay or lesbian kids. Now her ideas seem mild; then they were wildly coloring-outside-the-lines.

She recalled with disappointment the origins of Call to Action in the sixties. The bishops had asked lay people like herself for consultation, then after long, grueling hours when many had to leave young families, they totally dismissed their recommendations. (Apparently the same ideas, like allowing married men and women into the priesthood are still surfacing in the current synodal discussions.)

Although writing 12 books, a column, “Talks with Parents” for 30 years, and numerous articles might seem grim work in the clerical climate, Dolores did it all with spunk and humor. In one article she described driving through Nebraska when some ridiculous bishop there had excommunicated members of Call to Action. Her kiddos in the back seat picked up on the hint they might not have to go to Mass and were thrilled, cheering. She wrote one for America Magazine when the only names on their masthead had “S.J.” after them, about women in the church being like the builders, coerced by the English, of the Irish famine roads that went nowhere… The book that bridged from the Catholic world into the larger one was the Christopher Award-winning Traits of a Healthy Family.

Typical of Dolores, she focused not on pathology, but on characteristics parents might recognize and say, “Hey! We’re not doing so badly!” That work led to even more lectures nationally and internationally, and service with the White House Conference on Family in the 1980’s. 

Her sense of humor carried over into a project in Denver when some of us started an alternative to the diocesan newspaper, which featured 15 pictures of the archbishop in almost every issue. We began Leaven for the “thinking Catholic,”and included book and liturgy reviews, thoughtful pieces questioning some of the more egregious policies of local church leaders and the Vatican, and when we were lucky, a funny piece from Dolores. She and Sr. Mary Luke Tobin served for many years on our board, always generous with their support.

Personally, I’ll always be grateful for the vital encouragement Dolores and Sr. Joyce Rupp gave me when I transitioned from teaching college to writing and speaking in the spirituality arena. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would’ve floundered and quit within two weeks. Now, I continue to cherish her bold perspective, breath of fresh air, and model I’ve tried to follow. Brian Doyle names eloquently what she was: “if we cannot see God in the vessels into which the electricity of astonishing life is poured by a profligate creation… then we are very bad at the religion we claim to practice, which says forthrightly that God is everywhere available…” (Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, p.9)

With grief for the loss and gratitude we had her, I think of St. Thomas More’s line about “meeting merrily in heaven.” I know she’s laughing uproariously now with her husband Jim, their daughter Theresa who died young, and her many siblings. In fact, Dolores and God are probably cracking zany jokes together.

Tantalizing Whispers of Promise

I’ve been guilty of writing about Advent as a time of intense preparation for beloved family and friends to gather. Baking, shopping, decorating, and wrapping—all designed to wel­come travelers—create happy chaos around the table with extra chairs wedged at the corners.

True. But since the pandemic, Advent fatigue seems dif­ferent. It’s the loneliness of those whose kids aren’t coming home, the spouses who couldn’t reconcile. It’s the sad resigna­tion of the incarcerated whose daily routine is unchanging.

It’s the despair of the refugee girl who speaks only an indig­enous Central American language, who can’t understand the English, Spanish, or Farsi in her international school and sometimes simply puts her head down on the desk.

To all these, even to these, the Advent readings are perfectly timed wellsprings of hope and energy. God promises through Isaiah: “They will run and not grow weary, / walk and not grow faint.” Jesus beckons: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” Note: personal promises, not sure answers that ring hollow in the depths of despair.

Promise opens a different perspective: the tender God sees beyond limited human vision. God, source of all goodness, promises to walk close beside us. Jesus stakes his very life on us. Often our judgments of what’s positive or negative are wrong. What first seemed dire calamity can become surpris­ing joy. Hold it all, say Wisdom teachers. This season points to the coming of One who shares the suffering, enters the worst. Then the star brightens the night sky; the Advent candle lights.

Kathy Coffey, “Tantalizing Whispers of Promise” from the December 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.   

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Grateful for Demon Copperhead

At this time of year, a litany of gratitude often fills my head from the first dozy hours of the morning until I hit that first intractable problem on the computer. My gratitude journal bulges with things like this:

a lavish pour of sunset, like being in a basket of red-gold peaches,

the frothy Netflix drama “Enola Holmes,”

burrowing cold hands into my grandchildren’s sweatshirt pockets,

the quiet chit-chat of five small birds in my hanging flower basket,

the smell of wet leaves, essence of autumn,

setting the table for three of my children to come for breakfast,

the immense comfort of flannel shirt, old sweatshirt and jeans,

hot tea in a special mug, with an oatmeal cooky to fuel the writing,

the glimpse of water-colored hills in the far distance,

a splendid library system with automatic renewals and no fines.

It is to the last item on the list that I feel special gratitude, for getting me the newest Barbara Kingsolver novel, Demon Copperhead.

I’ll leave it to the Dickens scholars to probe the parallels with David Copperfield,  but both books vividly describe the harm that poverty and neglect can wreck on children. Demon, (who was named Damon at birth) the hero and narrator is innocent and vulnerable, the son of a teen-aged single mom with a drug problem, born in a single-wide trailer.

As starters, these strikes against him might sound too depressing for some readers to continue. But what saves the day are the number of good people who genuinely try to help, or at least understand, which feels to Demon “like not being hungry.” Other stellar elements are the formidable resilience of the hero, his wicked sense of humor, and a stoic sense of how doomed he is from the start. His vision of Social Services, foster parents, being the free-lunch kid at school and recipient of food sacks sent home by church ladies on weekends is clear-eyed, and sometimes hilarious. Although he refers to himself with Hilary Clinton’s unfortunate word “deplorable,” he quickly has the reader in his camp. 

On his eleventh birthday, his mom dies and the social worker who brings the news has a one-word explanation: oxy. That’s when we come to detest Big Pharm even more, if that is possible, for the way it preyed on the vulnerable. The opioid epidemic soon wipes out the small gains Demon has made, kills many of his friends, and leaves most of the county’s youth in a sad stupor.

In high school, Demon is briefly retrieved, adopted, funded by his grandmother, and becomes a star on the football team. But an injury and consequent chronic pain start his long descent into narcotics. He describes his inner “wanting disease,” “the hopeless wishes that won’t quit stalking you: some perfect words you think you could say to somebody to make them see you, and love you, and stay.” (p. 281) A coach and two teachers desperately try to save him, but he “follows doctor’s orders,” when Dr. is nothing but a murderous drug-dealer.

Like Dickens, Kingsolver goes to the dark places which many kids must frequent. The reader follows along in a kind of “when it can’t get any worse, it does” tension. The hero, despite his downward spiral, is still funny, and becomes more compassionate as he hurts more: “I know pain if I see it.” (p. 535) Kingsolver herself has Appalachian roots which give her deep empathy with her characters, an understanding of the place, and an ear for its language. Lest the reader be too wary, the novel ends on an uplift, restoring hope and redeeming Demon.

Those of us who judge it a Crisis to misplace our cell phones can’t begin to imagine the desperation, hunger, fear, humiliation and pain that drive someone to addiction. But reading this book is a small step towards deeper understanding and broader compassion.

All Souls, All Saints and Zumba

I’ve continued thinking about last week’s feasts of all saints and souls, once clearly delineated between the officially canonized, and others who’ve died. Now I’m not so sure about that hard, fast distinction. I’d prefer to think of heaven as those singing slightly off-key belting out tunes with Maria Callas, Mozart conducting the orchestra. Or my dad, who specialized in the Russian novel, having earnest discussions with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky about their themes. Dualistic thinking is bad enough in this life; let’s not project it onto the next. The Communion of Saints is a broadly inclusive concept referring to all people in this life and eternity. As Thomas Merton put it in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In this time and space, I sometimes wonder if Zumba class is a gate or a preview. All these women, with various shapes, ethnicities, ages and sizes are dancing and whooping together: from Asia, Afghanistan, Africa and all over the US. Muslim women shed their burkas in the dressing room, and enjoy what may be a rare chance to exercise freely. Our Ukrainian teacher, on their Independence Day, wears her distinctive blue and yellow t-shirt, socks and cap, weeping as she plays their national anthem. We may not all know each other’s names, but we energize each other, commiserate during the strenuous numbers, and would in a minute help anyone who fell or flagged.

It’s an improbable chorus line, usually moving right or left together, but no guarantees whether we’ll stick out an arm or a foot when cued. Having been trained too long in perfectionism (trudging grimly, carrying the whole burden), I like the playful, shared sloppiness of it. As my favorite author Richard Rohr points out, when we don’t realize we’re part of a larger whole, we take our small part too seriously. It’s not about figuring it out alone, or doing it perfectly by myself. All I gotta do is participate in God’s life.

What a relief! This may be a long stretch from Zumba, but I’m greatly comforted by the idea that “My holiness is, first of all—and really only—God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure. It is a participation…not an achievement or performance.” (A Spring Within Us, pp. 289-90.) I guess this is why I value teachers in the company of saints (e.g., all of us) who are positive and uplifting, not ranting and finger-pointing. After hearing too many condemning sermons, I’ll take my spot with the awkward Rockettes, dancing, elevating their heart rates, laughing at mistakes and doing it again next week.  

Feast of All Saints and All Souls—Nov. 1 and 2

During the last week, we celebrated the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, our ancestors who have preceded us into eternal life. People in some churches heard or read the Beatitudes on Tuesday.

When Jesus first walked among the crowds saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” his promises must have seemed extraordinary. But Christians throughout history have recorded their own astonishment at the amazing fulfillment of what must have initially seemed utterly outlandish.

Some people seem unaware or struck dumb by the gifts they have received. They may feel the amazement but putting it in words is the work of the poets. So Raymond Carver, who died at fifty, marveled that the last ten years of his life were “gravy.” Because of his alcoholism, he had received a terminal diagnosis at age forty. The love of poet Tess Gallagher, with her encouragement to stop drinking, bought him years he never thought he’d see.   

C.S. Lewis describes the abundance that underlies the Beatitudes:

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So perhaps these feasts lift our sights, restoring the spectacular knowledge that the holiness of ordinary folks is a participation in God’s, that our inheritance is that of God’s daughters and sons, and that jankety and limited as we are, we are still sure, redeemed, everlasting.