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Fourth Week of Advent

Notice the angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary at the annunciation: “Rejoice.” Let’s remember it this week, which can be one of the most hectic in the year. The angel says, “rejoice.” [NAB] 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.”

In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “each day has reasons for joy.” Maybe at this time of year, they are more obvious. The shared belief of Christians is that Jesus has become one with humans, indeed has pitched his tent within us. The once distant face of God has become as close, vulnerable and loveable as a baby’s. None of us deserves this, so we celebrate God’s lavish abandon, the pure gratuity of God’s gift.

If this seems a tall order, if we’re too tired or depressed to rejoice, we can take heart from the ambiguity of the feast. Mary’s reaction to the angel is to be “much perplexed.” Indeed, the whole experience is for her a two-edged sword: joy tempered by natural, human fear.

This season, when we hear songs of praise, Mary’s and Zechariah’s, let’s remember: Hers somehow overcomes the doubt and fear she must have felt. His breaks a long silence, welcomes new possibility, and expresses a hard-won trust in God—and his wife. Let’s try to make this week our own canticle of gratitude and praise.

Third Week of Advent


Sunday’s gospel says that when John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

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.

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)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Excerpted from the current issue of LIGUORIAN.

Second Week of Advent

Improbable Prophet

The people of John the Baptist’s day, like people today, would’ve expected any profound religious announcement to come in its proper place: from the rabbi in the synagogue. Instead, this unorthodox preacher appears in the Judean desert and attracts a crowd. People might be naturally suspicious. He certainly doesn’t use polite language, or worry about disturbing our comfort zones. Yet those too unsettled by this man in camel skin to pay attention might miss an important message. How sad to miss the Christ to whom John the Baptist points!

What unlikely prophets live among us? What surprising spirituality have we encountered where we least expected it? Did it come from someone too young to believe, or someone too oddly dressed to have credibility?

Especially if we’re self-righteous churchgoers, we need a herald like John to shake up our easy assumptions. We may not like the direction in which such leaders point, but their challenge upsets our own infallibility. It’s sadly easy to enshrine our personal opinions and make our preferences into little gods. In the spiritual life, some uncertainty and hesitancy, especially regarding our impeccable selves, is useful.

First Week of Advent

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: 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 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.



Gratitude Journal, Continued

At this time of year, gratitude overflows, so more excerpts from the journal described last week:

a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering over a puffy scarlet flower

a yoga session that works out all the kinks and aches

a library notice that 3 long-awaited books have arrived

a retreat house keeping up the fine tradition of cookies to fuel the spiritual journey

cool weather following  a long hot spell

feeling like a four-year old in new tennies, able to soar over mountains!

the smell of clean laundry dried in the sun

finding my watch, my keys, my glasses, lost in “senior moments”

a fine film that gives lots to reflect on in the weeks following it

home-made bread and veggie soup warming a chilly evening

a binge on Masterpiece Theatre Sunday evening

the fragrance of an orange pomander candle

big arcs of Canadian geese in a twilight sky

snuggly sweaters on cold days

hilarious e-mails planning a family event, fun in anticipation

the help of a 94-year old friend, carrying boxes to my car in the rain

the sloppy wet kiss of a grandson

an empty lap lane at the swimming pool

a reliable car that always starts

fat buds of red poppies

a book club choosing my work, GOD IN THE MOMENT

a square of sun on the wooden bannister or floor

a hike in misty fog early on Saturday morning

fitting into tight black jeans

the lilt of an Irish brogue

seeds given out at  a young friend’s funeral, blossoming into daisies








Excerpts from a Gratitude Journal

In his book THANKS!, Robert Emmons recommends keeping a gratitude journal to enhance our gratefulness. At this time of year, it’s especially appropriate to look back over past entries (I’ve now filled two small diaries), to see patterns, and to be grateful again for:

The Gifts of Time

–fitting in two errands and a quick walk before an appointment

–getting a free evening when it wasn’t expected

–one stop-shopping: finding all I needed in one place

The Gifts of Taste

–a favorite ice cream flavor

–Trader Joe’s dark chocolate lacey cookies or chocolate covered almonds or Girl Scout Samoas

–finding an easy crock pot recipe for pot roast or soup

–cinnamon-raisin swirl toast dripping with butter

–Yakima cherries on the Olympic peninsula

The Gifts of Work and Leisure

–meeting a deadline, finishing an article

–getting home before the snow fall, finished on a Friday with the week well done

–a proposal accepted, a talk scheduled, a project complimented

–finding fine novels: The Light between Oceans, The Truth According to Us, The Invention of Wings, All the Light We Cannot See at the library

–slipping into grubby, comfortable clothes after dressy ones

–falling asleep in deep peace

The Gifts of Family and Friends

–an unexpected call from my daughter, an e-mail from my son, a postcard from another daughter, a text from another son

–a wonderful dinner or hike with special people

–family members getting plane tickets for Thanksgiving or Christmas

The Gifts of Nature

–tiny toes of green buds in spring, turning into full-blown, tax-paying adult leaves

–the first ¼“ of daffodils poking through the mud

–the sound of rain on the roof

–prism light of sun on snow

November, the Month of All Saints

As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints and sing the Litany of Saints, let’s imagine a table where some of the U.S. saints, both officially canonized, and those not yet there, eat and chat.

Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and  Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.

Excerpt from WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450,

St. Katharine Drexel, Part 2

Drexel’s efforts to educate African Americans met with blatant prejudice. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature, hoping to stop the Blessed Sacrament Sisters from teaching at a Macon school, tried to pass a law that to prevent white teachers from teaching black students.

Furthermore, “in 1915, when Mother Katharine purchased an abandoned university building to open Xavier Preparatory School for black students in New Orleans, vandals smashed every window. Her lively sense of humor helped her endure. She was often self-deprecating; that joy would remain a gift throughout her lifetime.

Despite the prevailing bigotry, Drexel made possibly her most famous foundation–Xavier University, which sends more African-American graduates to medical school than any other university in the country. Despite harassment from the Ku Klux Klan, by 1942 her order had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, plus 40 mission centers and 23 rural schools.  

Her biography takes a surprising turn in 1935, when Katharine had a heart attack, and two years later retired as superior general. She had traveled constantly by train and stagecoach, gathering knowledge about the Navajos, the Sioux, and the deplorable state of education for native and black children. Until poor health at age 76 forced retirement, she made an annual visit to each of her far-flung foundations (145 missions and 12 schools for native Americans, 50 schools for black students).

It must have been a huge transition for one who had been so dramatically active and always on the move, but from her wheelchair she continued praying for justice to those she had served so long.  She had wanted a more contemplative life, and she spent her last twenty years in prayer. She must have savored a cornucopia of memories, writing: “God has let me see with my own eyes the good results of God’s desire.”

Excerpts from When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press)

St. Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia

When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia, he must’ve known the story of the city’s famous daughter, Katharine Drexel. She was born into great wealth, and during her canonization at the Vatican, a gospel choir sang and native Americans danced. What’s the story behind her?

When her father died in 1885, the financial genius left a $15.5 million estate, divided among his three daughters. About $1.5 million went to several charities, leaving the girls to share in the income produced by $14 million—about $1,000 a day for each woman. In current dollars, the estate would be worth about $250 million.

But as a young girl, Katharine had been sensitized to the poverty of native Americans. During a papal audience, she pleaded for missionaries to work with them. Pope Leo XIII parried with an astute question: “But why not be a missionary yourself, my child?”

Katharine’s final decision was trumpeted by a banner headline in The Philadelphia Public Ledger: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million.” That May 1889 news, which shocked the city’s elite, wasn’t quite accurate. She didn’t give up seven million; she would during the next 60 years give away about $20 million. It went to support of her work, building schools and churches, paying the salaries of teachers in rural schools for blacks and Indians.

It began in 1891, with the profession of Drexel’s first vows as a religious, dedicated to work among the American Indians and Afro-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. What quickly followed was the establishment of a religious community with thirteen other women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They started in 1894 the first mission school in Santa Fe, and one day eventually begin 50 missions for native Americans in 16 states.

to be continued

Excerpts from When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press)

St. Junipero Serra, Part 2

On his way up the coast of what is now California, Father Serra walking always with a painful, ulcerated foot, the result of a snake bite in Mexico, had his first encounter with natives who had not been in previous contact with any missions. In northern Baja, his writing is filled with reverent wonder for their unashamed nakedness, grace, vitality and charm. Unique for his time, Serra also acknowledged that the country was theirs. He offered them figs; they gave him fish.

While Serra’s writing delights in the smell of sea , the discovery of fresh water and roses, even jokes about the natives wanting his  ragged grey habit (because clothing was highly prized), he must have also seen how unrealistic was his dream of native peoples gladly presenting themselves for baptism. A culture based on personal freedom and individuality was reluctant to embrace the missions’ highly organized communal living. Despite his relentless optimism, Serra may have gradually come to recognize that a man nailed to a cross had little appeal to a buoyant, happy people whose abundant resources met most of their needs. Coastal Californians formed the oldest habitation in North America, dating from 11200 BC. 178 due to a moderate climate, skilled fishing and hunting, and clever cooking of plants, seeds and nuts

Few now know how precarious the California venture was, with the constant possibility of abandoning the whole attempt. So many Spaniards sickened or died, it was hard to see how the natives would ever want to become like them.

Finally, in desperation, Serra made the painful trip to Mexico City to plead his case before the viceroy of New Spain. Getting a surprisingly warm reception by the unusually enlightened ruler Bucareli, Serra laid out a thirty-two point plan which has been called “the first significant body of laws to govern early California.”  Forthrightly, he defended the rights of indigenous women, whom few others recognized as even human. He even asked: unless the behavior of Spanish soldiers improved, “what business have we… in such a place?”

It’s hard to criticize one who so quickly condemned himself. He recognized the inherent contradictions of his ministry—needing more Spanish soldiers for defense, at the same time knowing they’d prey on native women. In one dark mood, he even pointed out that despite innumerable blunders, right can come from wrong. No one then had any idea how diseases introduced by the Spaniards would decimate the native population. During Serra’s era, natives died at a rate 50% higher than in their years before contact with Europeans.  One scholar points out the great paradox of the missions: they brought both protection and exposure.

Many have pointed out that Serra had the unique blend of qualities that could keep the California missions afloat in distress. If nothing else, he had staying power, remaining when many others despaired, left, or went crazy.  He wanted to bring people eternal life, at great personal cost, unaware they might have been quite happy without his version.

Like most human beings, Serra was complex. As he himself wrote of his experience, “I am quite aware of the enormous difference there is between reading about it and actually going through it.” One has to admire the dedication of a five foot tall, 110 pound man with a badly infected foot and lower leg who walked 1000 miles of his 9000 mile journey. Indeed, when Californians were asked what statue should represent their state in Congress, they unanimously chose Serra.

To judge his religious belief and practice by contemporary standards is anachronistic. Simply because Serra is a controversial figure doesn’t mean he can’t be a saintly pioneer. His paternalism towards the Indians may have been pragmatic: outside the missions, they’d be thrown into the ranches as slave laborers. Nothing in his writing reflects anything but good will towards native peoples, protectiveness, and the wonder that stirred when he first met them in 1769.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In, available from Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450,