The Power of Kindness

Whenever I saw her, usually very early in my workday, she was always smiling. Short and stout, probably in her sixties, her toothless grin greeted me several mornings a month. She never wanted much from me and I didn’t even know her name. But her patient, happy smile always touched me. One morning she came in with a paper folder clasped in her hands, her smile even broader than usual. “I remembered to bring it this morning,” she said, and held the folder out to me. “Oh, thank you,” I replied, having no idea what she was talking about. She watched me expectantly as I took the folder from her. “May I look inside it now?” I asked, not knowing what to expect—a letter? a drawing? an old newspaper clipping? Her quick nod told me she wanted me to open it. What I pulled out was a photograph of her, a recent one. Full-color and a little fuzzy it showed her in a dark blue dress, her long brown hair pulled back and her broad sunken smile looking back at me. Startled, all I could say was, “Oh, your eyes are so beautiful!” And they were. Deep blue and clear, they bored into me and for the first time I realized that she was pretty. Despite her age and poverty and lack of teeth, she had a certain beauty about her. I told her thank you and she hugged me and left the office, her mission accomplished. I slipped the photo back into its folder and went back to work. Later that morning I mentioned the woman to a coworker and showed her the picture. “Oh yes, I know her!” she exclaimed and she told me the woman’s story.

Born into a large family, they lived in the hard mountain poverty of the South, the kind not yet softened by more recent government assistance programs. Farming and logging made for a poor living, but they were no different in that from most of their neighbors. Their differences were much more sinister. From her earliest years, “Sue” had suffered her father’s horrific sexual abuses. Her brothers and sisters and their mother were also victimized. While the community seemed to know what her father was doing, no one stepped in to stop it. Years of abuse and poverty had shaped Sue’s life, surely. Yet what I knew of her, what she was always showing me was her disarming smile. I mentioned this to my coworker and her response stunned me. Thoughtfully, she replied, “You’re probably the best thing in her life.” What? A few minutes a week spent in casual conversation? How could that mean so much to someone? Could that even be possible?

Of course it could be. None of us knows the power that simple kindness can have to heal a wounded soul. A smile, a soft word, a few moments of simple conversation—this can be great love to someone who lives in wounded isolation, in an invisible prison of hurts, abandonments, or history. Being Christ to others happens every day. In what can seem like very small things, we can reveal His very great love for all of us. Sue has taught me to be more mindful of every opportunity God places in my path each day as a chance to live the Gospel and to never take for granted His call to love my neighbor. And Sue’s constant, life-affirming smiles heal me, too. Now, more than ever since I know her love has blossomed despite her life circumstances. We are both Christ to one another and I thank God for allowing me to know her in my small way.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
—St. Teresa of Calcutta

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A Very Difficult Prayer

Vatican City is a tiny country located within the city of Rome. It has its own police, its own court system, its own post office. The government of the Vatican has many departments that are responsible for its administration. It even has a Secretary of State. One of the most famous men who have held this post was Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val who served Pope Pius X. He was born in London in 1865 and his father was the Spanish ambassador. He received an excellent education, spoke several languages and, as a priest, rose quickly through the ranks of Church power and influence. Pope Pius X named him Cardinal in 1903, when Rafael was only 38 years old. But aside from all his many talents and diplomatic skills, the young Cardinal was known for his faith and his holiness. In fact, most Catholics might not know that one of their favorite prayers was written by him. It’s called the “Litany of Humility” and it’s one of the most beautiful and most difficult prayers I’ve ever prayed.

It’s difficult because humility is a call to martyrdom. It means dying to self and that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s impossible without the Holy Spirit. To begin with, being humble doesn’t mean being timid or insecure or spineless. Humility isn’t low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. It doesn’t mean withdrawing from the challenges of life or being a pushover. Humility is seeing yourself honestly and realizing that you are not God. We know that everything we have is a gift from God and apart from Him, we are nothing. Humility makes us grateful. We give thanks to The Lord for everything, including our suffering. Humility knows that God is in control of everything, at every moment, and our surrender to His will gives Him glory.

When we put the needs and wants of other people before our own, it pleases God. When love is how we live, humility is in our hearts. Humility is serving others, obedience to our Maker and contentment in God’s plan for my life. He loves me completely and I belong completely to Him. I don’t have to “do” anything to impress Him. Humility goes against the ways of the world. This prayer, written by a Secretary of State, calls me to live in humility and to experience the peace of Christ in my heart. I hope it will do the same for you.

The Litany of Humility
—by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val

“O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being caluminiated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I, set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I, unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Amen.”

The three greatest virtues of Christianity: humility, humility, humility.”
—St. Augustine

How Healthy is Your Parish?

We’ve all been in parishes that seemed so alive with the Holy Spirit. We were energized with a passion for our faith, to evangelize and to contribute our time, talents, and treasure. Volunteers were plentiful and full of energy and joy. And the pastor smiled a lot. But there are those parishes where things were different—lots of committee meetings, a financial focus, the same people in the same roles year after year—and a not-so-smiling pastor. It’s a church on life-support. Have hope. When you’re able to recognize some of these early warning signs you’re on the road to helping your parish become what God has called us to be: lighthouses and not clubhouses. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your parish. Are you getting it wrong or right?

1) Your parish doesn’t look like the community around it. Do the folks in the pews reflect the diversity of age, race, income and the overall demographics of your neighborhood? If not, then there’s a disconnect somewhere. Hint: it’s NOT the neighborhood’s fault.

2) It’s a problem if the only thing your community knows about your parish is where the buildings are located. And for some parishes even this might be asking a lot. If you’re invisible to your neighbors you aren’t sharing the light of Christ with them. You’re just a blank spot where Jesus should be. Ouch.

3) Do your ministries spend more time and money on their programs rather than on helping people? Sometimes we can invest a lot of effort DOING our ministry (meetings, planning, recruiting, fundraising, etc.) than we do in actually serving others. What’s the point if all we do is talk about service but rarely actually feed or clothe or visit or comfort someone in need?

4) Is the first question we ask, “How much will it cost?” rather than, “How will it lead people to Christ?” Of course money is one of our parish resources. But only insofar as we can use money to share the Gospel. From which hymnals to buy to which Vacation Bible School program to use—our primary consideration has to be people. Always.

5) Do you think of your church as a “place?” Of course it has a physical address. But the truth is that your church is a parish family with a God-given purpose—and that purpose must look outside of itself for its mission. Too many parishes exist to serve themselves alone. Too few parishes find their purpose in the service of their neighbors. Does your church “stop” at the doors?

6) Every parish wants new members. But some only want new members if they look and act and pray and worship and tithe like the old members. If we aren’t seeking out and embracing our neighbors (of all races, ages, finances, and backgrounds) we’re nothing more than a secular clubhouse. We’re salt that’s lost its flavor and what good are we? (Matthew 5:13).

7) You think it’s the pastor’s job to make all the hospital, nursing facility, and homebound visits. Sure, only the priest can hear their confessions and anoint them with the oil of healing. But it’s every member’s calling to do what Christ tells us: love one another. This means you and me visiting the members of our parish family who can’t come to Mass with us. The pastor isn’t our proxy when it comes to this.

8) And here’s what I think might be the biggest problem in many parishes: half your members are missing. Look around the pews. How many moms bring their children to Mass alone? How many ministry members are women? What are you doing to engage entire families in your parish mission? How are you reaching out to those missing husbands and fathers? And if they do come to Mass, are they just space-holders or do they embrace the call to service? The simple fact is if the men of your parish are spiritually-dead, then so is your parish.

So. How does your church stack up? Is it a living, growing family or the church of the walking dead? Are you the salt and light of your community?

We are called to become a living Gospel in the world.”
—Pope Francis

Her Giving Hands

The first time I met her I was sick with a fever. We’d been traveling for days and I was dragging. She welcomed me into her home and nursed me back to health. Now, whenever I see her, she feels my forehead with her well-worn hands and says, “There now, no fever today,” as she smiles up at me. At five-foot-nothing, she has to look up to most everyone. Small and wiry, Gran is a bundle of energy, even now in her late eighties. And she gives that energy away, to everyone she meets.  

She lives in a stone cottage with a thatched roof that was built by her great-great-grandfather. Until 1965, it didn’t have electricity. Gran still likes to make tea and soda bread on the turf fire, although she has a modern kitchen. All 6 of her children were born in this house, just like Gran was. Her husband died here almost 30 years ago. Gran has some chickens and a milk cow, but the rest of her farm is rented out for cattle and silage. She has flowers on every windowsill and patch of ground and a few tomatoes and cucumbers growing in a tiny greenhouse. There are probably a thousand other cottages like hers in this corner of Ireland, but not one of them is more full of life and love than Gran’s house.  

I asked her once what kept her going, especially after her husband’s death, all these years ago. We were shelling peas in the sunshine behind the kitchen. Her hands flew down each pod as the peas dropped into the pan on her lap. She smiled down at her work and, not missing a beat, answered,”Because my life doesn’t belong to me. It’s meant to be given away.”  

And for more than 8 decades, that’s what she’s done. As the eldest of 5 children, she helped care for her younger brothers and sisters and worked on their large farm while going to school. When she was 17, she got married, and she and her husband made their home with her parents, caring for them both until their deaths. She helped her neighbors when childbirth came and nursed the sick and the dying. Her hands never stopped. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, milking, and holding babies. Gran’s life is told in her warm, wrinkled hands. As she sits by the fire in the evening, she embroiders altar linens for her parish church. One day several years ago, I was with her when there was a knock at her door. In this heavily-Catholic part of Ireland, two young Mormon men wanted to talk with Gran. She smiled and listened for a few minutes and then she pointed down across the fields to the small village she called home. There soared the spire of her Church. She said, “Look there. I can go there and sit with my Lord. I can receive His Body and Blood at every Holy Communion. Can your church give me more than that?” The young men thanked her and went on their way—with a loaf of her soda bread in their backpack. 

Gran has given me so many things over the years I’ve known her but what I treasure the most is her reminder to work hard at being generous and kind. Give your time to help others and listen twice as much as you talk. And a little whiskey at bedtime is a blessing. Her faith sustains her. I remember one day in her living room. She was watching the evening news on her new flat-screen television. The lead story was about the terror attack in Nice. I noticed that her eyes were nearly closed and her hands were busy in her lap, praying her Rosary. Probably for France, but also for her large family, now spread out over 4 continents. Those hands are always busy. Weaving a life lived for others, giving away love every day and never stopping to think of herself. I pray that God will make me more like her and I give thanks to Him for her example of a grateful servant of the Lord. Thank you, Gran. You’re a wonderful gift to everyone who knows you.

“Love does not measure, it just gives.”            —Blessed Mother Teresa

Jesus First

One of the most jarring things Jesus ever said, at least in my opinion, is when He’s speaking in St. Luke’s gospel about the effects His ministry will have on families. He tells us, “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”(Luke 12:53).  At first blush this seems to go against everything we know about the Gospel. Doesn’t Jesus preach about love and peace and caring for one another? Aren’t we taught to give more than we’re asked for and to forgive seventy-times-seven? Isn’t love and forgiveness what Christ is all about?

Well, yes and no. Obviously it is God’s great love for us that sent His Son to live as one of us and to give Himself up for us as the perfect sacrifice. Living in Christ means living in His love and allowing His love to transform us. In that love we find forgiveness and mercy—and are called to be His hands and feet as we love and serve the people of God. Certainly God’s plan for our lives is a love story. And in human terms, that unfolding love story first begins within the context of our families. This is where we first know love and experience the care and peace that only the intimacy of family life can provide. Jesus chose to enter humanity in a family and was loved and nurtured by Our Lady and St. Joseph in the home they made for Him. So how can all we know about Christ and the Gospel make sense of this passage written for us by St. Luke?

One thing we learn us that there is an order, a hierarchy, of love. Our love of God must come first in all things, even in families. If we allow anything or anyone to come before Him, our lives are disordered. Jesus is illustrating the utterly transformative effect that following Him will have on our lives. He comes first in all things: before our jobs, before our friends, even before our families. Our commitment to Jesus MUST transform every area and aspect and moment of our lives. Being a Christian changes how we choose to make a living, whom we marry (and IF we marry), how we conduct ourselves in business, how we raise our children, how we spend our money, and how we contribute to the community in which we live. If we claim Him as savior then He must be first in our lives. This is what Jesus means in St. Luke’s gospel. Jesus claims us entirely for His Sacred Heart.

That claim can and must radically change us. St. Paul calls us “new creations”(II Corinthians 5:17). That newness of life in Christ sets us apart from the world. We are in the world but not of the world(Romans 12:2). We don’t live like other people. We work and play differently. We have different goals and achieve them in different ways. If we’re just like everyone else, then we’re not doing it right. When Christ comes first in all things, it means everything else is ordered AFTER Him. And that can and does cause problems in some families. We know these problems well. We may have experienced them in our own families: choices made which conflict with faith, marriages unravelled by sin, children ravaged by divorce, and lives wounded through walking a path away from God. Love is a messy journey and we’re all struggling at it. We’re trying to find they way God wants us to be His beloved child. A trusted prayer in times like these is,”Lord, help me to be like Jesus.”  Help me to love as Jesus loves, to forgive as Jesus forgives, to be humble and merciful as He is humility and mercy. I fail at this every day. A hundred times a day. St. Paul tells us how to love like Jesus. You know this scripture. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged”(I Corinthians 13:4-7).  These verses are about true love, sacrificial love: love that costs you something. The kind of love that families share, the kind of love that can see them through the most difficult of times. At the center of that kind of love is the humility of Jesus. Humility that gives without counting the cost, expecting no repayment. How much division in our families and our churches is a result of pride? Of keeping score and wanting to be right? Of putting our own wants and needs first? Probably most of it. Keeping Christ first puts everything and everyone else into their proper places. Especially in our families.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

       —Pope Saint John Paul II

Praying with the Dying

When we opened the door of his hospital room, we could hear his labored and uneven breathing. My friend’s uncle, now almost 90, was in his final battle with heart disease. I’d met him a few times over the years, but the man in the hospital bed looked little like the burly, overpowering man he’d been until the last few years. He was thin and gray, with his eyes closed, grasping at the sheets with bony fingers, using all his energy just to breathe. He hadn’t wanted his doctors to put him on a ventilator, so all he had helping him was an oxygen mask. I felt terrible, watching his agony.

But it was more than the hospital smell and the sound of his struggling breaths that was affecting me. There was a heavy, oppressive feeling to this room. Imagine gravity suddenly doubling and you’ll get the idea. The air itself seemed weighted and thick. It felt like I was being pushed down into my shoes. My friend felt it, too He slumped into the only chair and I saw his shoulders fall forward. I didn’t like being there. It felt wrong and somehow, ugly. You know how they say you can sense the presence of evil? I believe it. Not that I thought my friend’s uncle was an evil man. He’d always been pleasant enough to be around, if a little bit loud. I’d never felt this sort of darkness around him before. But then, he’d never been on his deathbed before. So, as the old man struggled with each breath, my friend and I prayed for him. I have the Divine Mercy app on my phone and we spent the next several minutes praying those beautiful words out loud. I’d like to say that the dark, oppressive feeling in the room disappeared right away. Or that my friend’s uncle sat up, fully healed and asking for pudding. But none of that happened. Instead, he died later that night, alone, in his hospital room.

In the Divine Mercy prayers, we ask for God’s mercy on us, on the person who is dying, and for everyone in the world. Our sins offend Him every day and yet His great mercy is so much more than the weight of those sins. God delights when we ask for that mercy. We put all our trust in His love for us, in His blood shed for us on the Cross, and in the hope of the resurrection. The prayers are comforting and tender and are among my favorite devotions. I think I’m drawn to them because I know the darkness of my own sins and how very much I need His mercy. It’s a grace when you know that you sin. A grace I don’t deserve.

As we prayed for him there at his bedside, I imagined the angels who knelt there, too and prayed along with us. Surely his uncle’s guardian angel was there, and others as well. Were there other spirits in the room, too? Darker energies who feast on despair and anger and loneliness? Maybe their presence was the oppression and heaviness we’d felt when we entered the room. I don’t know. Maybe it was just the nearness of death. Our voyage through this life and into the next one is a mysterious one.. The love of Christ is our hope and our light through a world that is often dark and sorrowful. And yet, even HIs infinite love for us is a mystery, as well. I know that being with anyone as they approach death is a privilege and grace. Praying for them as they journey out of this life is a gift that should never be refused, no matter the difficulty. When you have that chance, be there for them. Pray for the mercy of God and for the grace to love and forgive until each of us take our last breath here.

We weren’t there for him when he passed from this life, but I believe our prayers were. I believe the angels were there that night, long after visiting hours were over, keeping vigil and praying for his soul. No prayer is ever unheard by our Lord. That’s another mystery of our faith. One of the great gifts we share as Christians is praying for one another. Our words rise like the smoke of incense (Revelation 8:4) and are sweet and pleasing to Him. We’re all on this journey together and we need each other every step along the way. Don’t ever miss the opportunity to pray for a brother or sister as they pass on to eternity.

“We are all just walking each other home.” —Richard Alpert 

Sweet Mercy

Several years ago when I was going through a difficult period in my life, I let my heart be filled with bitterness and resentment. I had been hurt by people I had thought were my friends. I became consumed with feelings of betrayal and anger. I spent (wasted) my time nurturing those feelings. I was going nowhere, except into a hardened and sinful place. I was more concerned with holding onto my grievances than I was with allowing God to heal me of my pain. Until I was ready to forgive, how could Jesus forgive me? So one night I wrote down the names of all the people who had wronged me. I held the list in my hands and began to pray for each one of them by name. It was tough. At first I’ll admit that only a tiny piece of my heart was involved when I prayed. But as I continued with it day after day I felt myself letting go of the anger and hurt. I didn’t forget what had been done, but I was able to lay my hurts and resentments at the foot of the Cross. In return, God gave me His mercy and peace. For the first time in a long time, I was free.

Looking back, I can only wonder at the weeks and months I had invested in all that anger. I let it take over my life and rob me of my joy. I gave it permission to be in control, instead of welcoming Christ’s mercy into my heart. This is something nearly all of us deal with at one time or another. One famous family experienced the pain of separation and estrangement over a lack of forgiveness and the price they paid for it was enormous.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the most well-known Victorian poets. Growing up in England, she was the oldest of twelve children. Elizabeth began writing poems in childhood and despite a lifelong battle with poor health, she continued to be a prolific poet. Her courtship with Robert Browning produced a multitude of letters famously detailing their love for one another. But Elizabeth’s father was completely opposed to their relationship. After they married, she was disinherited and her father never forgave her and never spoke with her again. The newlyweds moved to Italy and she never saw her dad again. Despite his hard feelings towards her, Elizabeth continued to faithfully write to him for many, many years. Towards the end of her life, she received a large box filled with the letters she’d written to her father—all of them unopened and unread. Because he couldn’t forgive her for loving Robert Browning, her father had missed out on knowing his daughter.

When you get right down to it, not forgiving someone who has wronged you is a sin of pride. You and your grudges become more important than anything else—family relationships included. You think you know best. You believe that your hurt feelings have priority over anything else. They almost take on a life of their own and you nourish and encourage them by remembering how you were wronged and treated unfairly. It’s all me, me, me. Your memories build a prison around your heart and that’s the definition of pride.

Who do you need to forgive today? Are you estranged from someone in your family? Forgiveness and reconciliation are a gift you can give to yourself. Even if the other person never admits how they hurt you. It’s not about them. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or betrayed, it just means that you no longer choose to hold onto that hurt anymore. Ask The Lord to help you do this. It might take a while, but that’s okay, too. Little by little you’ll feel a burden being lifted and grace will lead you through it. Don’t waste time losing out on love.

When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
—Mark 11:25

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