Category Archives: Family Spirituality

St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast—Oct. 15

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Good Lord deliver us!”

“May God preserve us from stupid nuns!”

No matter how hard they try, hagiographers can’t camouflage Teresa’s tart brusqueness. In her day, the sixteenth century, the Inquisition tried to force change through threats, imprisonment and violence. One suspects that Teresa’s humor had longer-lasting effects.

She reformed not only the Carmelite order, but also attitudes about women and approaches to prayer. Because her early training had shoe-horned her into trivial conversation with too many women jammed into one house, she created orderly spaces where her sisters could turn inward. “My daughters, we are not hollow inside,” she reminded them.

Then she took on the prevailing ideas of prayer: mindless repetition of rote formulas imposed by the clergy. Most people considered direct experience of God, without priestly intervention, subversive. Teresa gave images of contemplation that were close to daily life: the watered garden, beehive, interior castle, heart of God like the innermost, edible core of the palmetto. The face of God that Teresa reveals is not punitive or distant, but precious as a lover, close as a friend.

All the while she was dancing around the Inquisition, coyly claiming she had no idea what she was talking about. How could others condemn her when she beat them to it? Meanwhile, probably grinning self-protectively, she focuses on God’s generosity: “Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”

Protesting Children in Cages

One of the most memorable things Rachel Maddow said in “Raise Hell,” a documentary about reporter Molly Ivins was, “She wasn’t afraid to get angry.” The imprisonment of children near our southern border demands our anger: for details, see last week’s blog. Every religious tradition believes in the spark of the divine in the human and the call to protect the innocent. Hence, as promised, this week’s blog explores ways to protest.

Call Your Representative

This is the phone number for the House and Senate Switchboard.

Tell them who your representative is; they will connect you directly to that person.


You may talk to a tape or speak with an aide; make your message succinct: “I’m a constituent, calling to ask what N______ (insert name of Congressperson) is doing to stop the imprisonment of children at the southern border. I’m appalled that my taxes are supporting for-profit prisons which keep children in cages and make huge sums off their misery. These children have not committed a crime. How will you stop this human rights abuse?

Encourage members of your church, synagogue or mosque to call too. If you have contacts in the news media, ask them to keep up pressure to close the camps.

Put the creche in a cage; Post this poem

Last year, many churches placed their crib scenes within cages, saying symbolically: the children in cages are Christ himself. For Christian traditions preparing Advent resources, here is a poem drawing a parallel between the holy family and refugee children today. You have permission to reprint in your non-profit bulletins, etc.

                                           Nativity Scene, 2019

                                             by Kathy Coffey

Infant in a cage,

Magi banned from travel.

Desperate parents fleeing

murderous thugs, saving

the child’s life. While

Herod-in-Chief names them

thieves and murderers, amasses

armies to defend rampant fear.


The moral unraveling not so

easily packaged as the creche:

we tolerated this atrocity.

Still on southern borders

a child sleeps beneath aluminum foil,

wakes to florescent lights on wire mesh.


Innocents Imprisoned: Children Still in Cages?

It’s puzzling when we think an issue has been resolved, but it continues to surface. Such is the case with the children separated from their parents at the border, jailed in horrid conditions at for-profit prisons. A few background points:

∞ In July 2018, tens of thousands of people marched around the country, protesting the criminalization of those doing what any of us would do: fleeing dreadful violence to protect their children’s lives.

∞ In July 2019, people again demonstrated with signs carrying messages like, “Close the Camps!” The ACLU sued, saying more than 900 children have been separated from their parents since the practice was ordered to be stopped last year. How many children have since been returned?

∞ Last Friday, federal judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles blocked administration rules that would have kept immigrant children in detention with their parents indefinitely. The Flores agreement will remain in place and NOT be used to deter refugees fleeing desperate conditions from seeking asylum. But does this apply to the children separated from their parents?

Earlier this year, a few attorneys were allowed into the detention centers, and they were horrified by conditions there. But elected members of Congress were prevented from entering, and now the press is not permitted entry. Meanwhile, the private prison system makes huge profits off miserable children, deprived of adequate food, showers, health care and education. According to a reports by Daniella Silva of NBC, Julia Ainsley of NBC, Senator Jeff Merkeley of Oregon, and others, children as young as toddlers are living in extremely crowded metal cages, in freezing temperatures, with no bedding or blankets. Citizens can’t find out about it, and we’re paying for it.

Rachel Maddow did a segment on this outrage July 30: Especially touching is the interview Julia Ainsley did with a 17-year old boy. He had recently been released, and guaranteed anonymity, could report on conditions in the prison. He explained how children were so tightly squeezed together, they took turns sitting or lying down to sleep, and spent a great deal of their time standing. Most memorable: deprived of adequate food, the younger children cried, which would invite retaliation from the guards, so the older children shared theirs. What a tribute to the generous human spirit, that gives away desperately needed nutrition under terrible circumstances!

Because the children are grieving the loss of their families, and have no idea what will happen to them, they are certainly terrified and distraught. (See the long-term effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences in the review of Deepest Well, published on this site 7/28/19.) Guards punish those who cry, or ask for anything, including food or water. A 15-year old girl was sexually assaulted by a guard and there are reports of physical violence against other children by guards.

How can we ignore the suffering of the innocents? Everything in our religious traditions tells us to act. Next week, see suggestions on how to protest this human rights abuse.

Thank You, Greta Thunberg

∞for spending more than a year sitting every Friday in front of the Swedish parliament, alone in all weathers with your “Climate Strike” sign

∞for finding an alternate to jet travel—a solar-powered boat–for your journey to the US to speak to the UN Climate Action Summit

∞for using strong language to condemn the inactivity of the world’s leaders on global warming: “How dare you?”

∞for galvanizing a children’s crusade to save the planet which young people will inherit, and awakening us all to the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions

∞for staring down the flurry of Donald Trump’s arrival at the UN (not, however, to contribute anything to the discussion of climate change. Even though the promises of other nations were inadequate, they were attempts. The US offered nothing.)

∞For reminding the world that everyone can make a difference in the effort to preserve the planet

∞For openly acknowledging you’re on the autism spectrum, transforming what could have held you back, instead ignoring “social coding” and following your own path

∞For unfailing politeness in a grueling schedule of televised interviews, and the brusque correctness of your British-accented English

∞For not allowing the fact that you’re only 16 to stand in the way of an urgent imperative to speak out and turn the tide

∞For filing a complaint with the UN that governments’ lack of action on a pressing issue endangers children’s right to a future·

Every now and then, a bright light flares across the scene of world events and inspires humanity. We’re blessed to have seen yours, Greta.

Sept. 27—Feast of St. Vincent de Paul

People in the US today might feel it’s slightly smarmy for someone to join the priesthood for social climbing. But that’s exactly what St. Vincent did, and what still draws people in some countries from poverty into priesthood. In fact, St. Vincent’s father’s muddy boots so embarrassed him when dad visited the seminary, he refused to see the old guy. His long-term strategy was successful: St. Vincent rose to become the queen’s chaplain and a tutor to one of Paris’ wealthiest families. He rode a long way on charm…

Sound skeazy? Then grace intervenes. After a major turning point, Vincent turned his considerable skills to the poor. After all that schmoozing with the wealthy, Vincent founded a congregation to educate priests, as well as hospitals, orphanages and homes for the mentally ill. Starting the Daughters of Charity with St. Louise de Marillac revolutionized the enclosed life for nuns, making “their convent the sickroom; their cloister the streets of the city.”

But he didn’t lose his touch with the rich. They started competing to fund his projects, including the ransom of slaves in North Africa. Today we probably all know folks who serve as bridges between the wealthy and the poor, charmingly transferring a surplus of money to where it’s needed most. (Pause here to appreciate your favorite fund raiser, or a priest/nun happy to separate you from your wallet.)

St. Vincent apparently continued the gracious ask when he was dying, informing God: “We have done what you commanded, do now what you have promised.”

Back to School

By now, most folks are settled into the school routine, and what was once brand new, maybe frightening, has become familiar. Still, we shouldn’t let it become so familiar that we miss the wonder of this extraordinary process. It’s as if all the musicians in a symphony come together, but none plays an obvious musical instrument. They are teachers, parents, students, bus drivers, crossing guards, administrators, security, classroom aides, kitchen staffs, custodians, before-and after-school care, nurses, librarians, social workers, and probably many more unsung heroes.

For the last four years (as well as for about 15 years with my own kids), I’ve been part of this process, dropping off and picking up grandchildren, and it still amazes. The crossing guard is unfailingly kind as he greets us: “Good Morning, Sweethearts!” and hoists his Stop sign. There’s a whole family in saris, a mother in a burka, and a father in the long black robe of a Greek Orthodox priest. A dad grips his ten-year old son’s hand, an image of security in the brown hands intertwining. Older siblings shepherd younger ones; junior high students cling to their phones like life rafts–what messages could be so compelling? Somewhere in that crowd, flocking to the playground by 8:10 am, there could be another Nobel Laureate, the scientist who will find a cure for cancer, a future parent who will advocate for an autistic son, a gifted novelist or doctor.

And this is only the warm-up! It was once popular to speak of the “Liturgy of the World.” If so, this is the Entrance Procession, with silent hymns, quiet trumpets and unseen banners. What transpires in those classrooms the rest of the day is nothing short of miraculous. Of course it’s not perfect, there’s some wasted time, and it doesn’t work well for every child. But at the end of a year, tiny people will know—just for starters– how to read, write, add, subtract and more-or-less sing. At the university down the road, students representing hundreds of diverse nations and cultures will learn together, and become friends less likely to bomb each other’s nations in adulthood.

On the first day, my four-year old granddaughter explains that her teacher is also a counselor. “So if you’re lonely or sad or scared, you can talk to her.” I don’t remember, at age four (or fourteen!), ever admitting I had such feelings, let alone seeking counsel. But it bodes well for the rest of the year that such a resource is ready and waiting.

This quiet, daily process occurs in every city and town, urban and rural, and might make some nations envious. We should herald it with brass bands, but for now, continue putting one foot in front of the other, carrying another pack back, making another lunch, encouraging another child. Who knows? Of such simple things, greatness might be made.

First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth.. . . We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”

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