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My friend Angela is an extraordinary person, and not just because she’s a consecrated virgin living in the world.  The year I met her, I wandered in the middle of my life into a church in Brooklyn, New York, and finally committed to convert to Catholicism.  Angela attended church without fail–it seemed that every single time I was there, she was there.  The priests often called her to come up and help, whether to serve communion or to read if our usual 12:30 lector, Eric, wasn’t there.  She always said yes, happily padding up to the altar in bare feet, a big smile on her face.  She was friendly, especially after she met me and found out that I was converting.  Every time I saw her, she’d say, “I love ya, kiddo.”  I didn’t know her that well, but I figured it was just because I was kind to her elderly mother, who sometimes appeared in church beside her, and sometimes didn’t, due to her advanced age and failing health.

My sponsor for baptism and confirmation was my old friend Charles, who lived a few miles across Brooklyn and had a tendency to lateness.  We had known each other for years; we became friends over disaster tacos when G.W. Bush was voted in for his second term.  Sometimes he was so late to things that they were over when he got there.  He’d come in to church to meet me, and I could hear him singing loudly, walking up the aisle during the final hymn.  Those were the lucky days.  Other days he just couldn’t make it at all, mostly because he was depressive.  I just knew that some days were good days for Charles and some were not so good.  I didn’t judge, though occasionally I’d be disappointed.  Mostly I didn’t count on his appearance, so that when he did show up, I’d be delighted.  Part of the reason I had asked him to sponsor my conversion was because I knew that church was important to him, but he needed a push to come.

Because Charles sometimes couldn’t make it, I appreciated Angela’s ever-present commitment to church.  I didn’t realize that she was extraordinary until lateCommunion-of-Saintsr.  At first, I just thought she was a nice woman.

The week of Easter the year I was baptized, my mother-in-law died, and then I got sick.  I don’t know if it was the flu, a terrible cold, or demons (though I still have my suspicions about that.)  I felt awful, though.  Aside from feeling like I had let my husband down in his moment of grief, I had an earache that turned into partial deafness for several weeks, as well as respiratory problems that you really don’t want me to describe in detail.  In addition, I was preparing for the full-body immersion in our baptismal font, which was designed like a tomb.  I was glad to know that there was a little bleach in the holy water, because I didn’t want to pass my germs to everyone else.  On top of everything else, my priest asked if he could wash my feet at Mass on Holy Thursday.  I was nervous about all of it, so when I went to attend Holy Thursday Mass, I asked my former student Kevin to come with me.  (I was afraid I might faint, due to being sick.)

Angela was there, so I introduced Kevin to her.  I half-expected that she might tell Kevin she loved him, too, but she didn’t.  Mass started, and I got my feet washed, and I came back and sat with Kevin and knelt and rose for prayers and did everything I was supposed to do for the first hour or so.  And suddenly, in the middle of kneeling, I started to feel very wrong.  “Are you okay, Susan?” Kevin whispered.

It turned out I did not faint.  But right in the middle of the consecration of the Host, with my newly clean feet, I had to sprint out of church and into the little bathroom in the entryway, because instead, I had to vomit.  Violently.

A few moments after, when I was washing the sink, I heard Angela’s voice.  “Are you okay? Kevin asked me to come and check on you,” she said.

“I threw up,” I said.  “I don’t know what happened.  Maybe it’s demons.”  I was joking, but only about half joking.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not demons,” Angela said, and laughed. She put her arm around me and helped me back to the pew, while everyone else was returning from the communion line to their seats.

Two days later, on Saturday morning, Angela came to the consecration ceremony for the catechumens.  Charles had come the day before to Good Friday service and scolded me for genuflecting, since the tabernacle was empty.  Charles would be coming, too, to my baptism at Midnight Mass that night, but that morning must have been a bad morning, because he didn’t make it.  It turned out that it didn’t matter.  Angela stood in for Charles at every moment, even helping my priest by holding the vials of holy oil, including the one that smelled like pine and incense, which he used to cross the palms of my hands, my forehead, and my chest.

That was when I realized that the source of Angela’s extraordinariness wasn’t just that she was a friendly woman from my neighborhood.  I knew a few permutations of love–the romantic kind, and the kind I had for friends, especially friends like Charles, whose wounds I recognized in myself.  There was the love I was developing for my priests, a special semi-parental kind which confused me at first until I could put a name to it.  And then there was Angela’s kind–the kind that showed up whether she knew you needed her or not, just in case you did.  And I did.

As I was packing up my things to go, Angela came up to me.  “How ya feelin’?” she asked.  I assured her that I was much better.  “I know.  You look alright,” she said.  “You’ll do fine tonight.  And don’t forget, I love ya, kiddo.”

“I love you, too, Angela,” I replied.

Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia

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In celebration of National Poetry Month, this blog will continue to feature guest posts by our published poets. This week we welcome Susan L. Miller with reflections, stories and poetry from her newly released book Communion of Saints: Poems.

My poem “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” was inspired by my friend Carol, the first nun I ever met.  I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties in a parish in Brooklyn, run by Franciscans.  Two of my priests, Santo and Timothy, were often referred to by our parishioners as “Mary and Martha,” partly because of Father Timothy’s extraordinary work efforts.  Along with Wellington, our handyman, and a number of young men in our parish, Father Timothy remodeled an apartment behind the church.  The apartment, he told me one day during a two-hour confession-turned-church-tour, would be for our sisters.  He had drawn up plans by hand, showing the built-in bookshelves he would create in the living room, and despite the disarray of the project at the time, I could tell he had planned something very special.  He was even using the original wood to recreate the floors.

When I saw Sister Carol’s grey veil in the side aisle of the church for the first time, I made a point of sitting close by.  She remembers me greeting her by saying, “It’ll be nice to have some women here!”  I didn’t realize at the time what good friends we would become–but I did have hopes.

It was also Father Timothy who suggested to me during confession one Saturday that Sister Carol needed help in the Religious Education office.  He knew I was a teacher too, and I think he had hopes that I would eventually teach, but I started (and ended) my work there just doing simple data entry, registering children into their classes.  Sister Carol spoke so quietly that I would have to listen closely to her–being a little hard of hearing due to garage band hours logged in my youthCommunion-of-Saints.  She listened to me patiently as I ranted, often, about parts of Church doctrine that I found difficult to understand.  I knew her family lived up North, that she had spent years in Assisi and Massachusetts, and that she cared deeply for Sister Mercedes, our eldest nun.  She told me other stories.  When I asked if she had ever had a boyfriend, she told me the one about how, in her teens, she had a crush on a friend of her brother.  He had apparently planned their future together, but after she went away to college, “he found another young rose.”  Sister Carol did things her own way: the office key was marked “U,” for “ufficio.”  We laughed a lot.  We spent many hours together.  We had tea in the office at Christmas, and in the summer, once, she asked me to give her a haircut.  I was a little terrified to do it, since I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair since college, when my friend Travis had traded a pack of cigarettes for a haircut.  I figured that under her veil, very few people would see it if I made a mess of it, so I went ahead and gave it to her.  The soul of charity, she thanked me, but she never asked me to do it again.

It also didn’t take long for each of us to admit to the other that we wrote poetry.  I immediately encouraged her to show me hers, and brought poems of mine for her.  Sister Carol was more reticent, but one day, she e-mailed me an attachment.  When I opened it, a tiny poem was there–no more than ten lines.  No one wrote this kind of poetry in my graduate school–this poem had taken a walk in the wintertime dark and distilled it into its essence.  It was a lyric poem in the best way–concise, with a precision of language and image, and a mystery at its center.  I’m not sure I even knew how to read a poem like that, though of course I had, many times.  I wrote her back asking a bone-headed question about it.  I think she was disappointed, though, as with the haircut, she was kind.

It was only later, when she posted it on Facebook the next winter, that I read the poem and finally absorbed it.  She had editedit only slightly, but suddenly, it shifted into focus for me, and I understood what she might have seen and heard on that winter walk.  Sister Carol may have been quiet, but I realized what power she had as a speaker, if only I could find the right way to listen.

Winter walks at night
Not under a scrutinizing glance
But under a benevolent sky;
Even if dark and cold surround,
Clear and calm ring out
And I listen and hear.

For a long time, I thought that friendship was challenging because we must learn to love people who make such different decisions than we do.  I still think that’s a challenge, but I’ve also come to think of it as a gift.  And poetry, like friendship, makes us listen, even if just for once, to the way the voice in someone else’s mind might sound.

(Poem reprinted with permission of Sister Carol Woods, S.F.M.A.)

Premonition on the Holy Mountain

Years ago, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis. Cairns realized his spiritual life was advancing slowly and time was running out. For this this Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox, a desperate need to seek out prayer led him to Mount Athos—the Holy Mountain.

Originally published in 2007, Short Trip to the Edge is the narrative of Scott’s spiritual journey to the mystical peninsula of Mt. Athos. With twenty monasteries and thirteen sketes scattered across its sloping terrain, the Holy Mountain was the perfect place for seeking out and discovering the stillness of a true prayer life.

Scott revisits Mt. Athos in the poem Premonition on the Holy Mountain: Remembering Brett Foster. Enter the katholikon, embrace the “dark hours,” join the host of silent witnesses and bide your time in peace as we prepare our hearts for Holy Week.

Read an excerpt of Short Trip to the Edge

Premonition on the Holy Mountain—remembering Brett FosterIn Vatopaidi’s dark katholikon
the liturgy has just begun, though we
three pilgrims have stood propped in our stasidi
for, lo, three dark hours already. The Psalms,
the Midnight Hours, the Matins—all have filled
our drowsy heads with Greek as we have drifted
in and out of what seems very like a dream.
It seems a dance, it seems a slow, a ceaseless
prayer, and, when I close my eyes, I feel
that I am also dancing with a crowd
of silent witnesses. It is a taste—
one might suppose—of what one finds interred:
embraced, asleep, and biding time in peace.

Just now, three tall thin monks float into view
to set lit tapers to the oil lamps,
and we awaken to the call announcing
“Blesséd is the kingdom of the Father,
of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I turn to see my friend. He has fully
wakened now, his face aglow, his face aflame,
his lovely spirit singing Blesséd is the name.

Other titles by Scott Cairns:

Slow-Pilgrim

Compass-of-Affection

 

“Is this what you were called to, Still Pilgrim?”

Listen as poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talks about the inspiration for her newest book, Still Pilgrim.

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“The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. These poems have become your poems, this story your story, bespeaking our (un)common beginnings and our equally (un)common end.” — Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, from the Afterword

Videographer: David De La Fuente

The Luminous Words of Rilke

Rilke
More than a century has passed since Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the poems in our volume, Prayers of a Young Poet. Rilke’s poetry chronicles a search for the divine: in the ordinary details of the everyday and the mystery of our inner life, and the courage to embrace whatever comes – whether darkness or light, despair or delight. With a distinctive blend of lyric vitality and spiritual authenticity, Rilke’s poems have found their way into the heart of readers today.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we invite you to read an excerpt from Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark S. Burrows.

We grasp You only in what we do,
illuminate You only with our hands;
our every sense is but a guest here,
yearning to reach beyond the world.

Every sense is conceived;
one feels its elegant hem,
and knows someone spun it —
but heaven surrenders itself
because it cannot choose.

I don’t want to know where You are;
speak to me from everyplace.
Your willing evangelist distorts
everything, and in his forgetting
neglects to look for the resonance.

But I’m always approaching You
with all my coming;
yet who am I and who are You
when neither of us understands the other?

NEW from Paraclete Press: The Prayers of the Reformers

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This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Paraclete’s newest release Prayers of the Reformers is an invitation to look into the hopes and concerns of the Reformers by reading their personal prayers. From Luther and Knox to Calvin, Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes, their wisdom speaks across the centuries to our world today, torn by competing religious and political factions and challenges to the institutions of faith.

Below is an excerpt from the Introduction:Reformers

Some historical events have such a profound impact and such a multitude of consequences that the world is changed forever in their wake. The Protestant Reformation must certainly be counted among such events. Given the loud repercussions—social, theological, cultural, liturgical (among so many others)—that have continued to echo through the centuries, even to our own day, it might be easy to forget that behind the forces that brought about such change were devout people of faith, whose everyday lives were marked by times of prayer. The Protestant “reformers,” as they have come to be known, were also, and perhaps most importantly, “pray-ers.” Certainly we learn much from the writings they have left, as well as the many records of their lives. But they have also left us their prayers, like windows into their own souls, and in their prayers we can meet them and learn from them.

The prayers of the Protestant Reformers are filled with some of the central themes of their faith, perhaps first among them being an unshakable confidence in God’s supreme authority over all time and space. History is God’s workplace. He does not stand afar off, but actively and intimately participates in the lives of people in order to show his love and bring about his will. Many of the Reformers’ prayers reflect this conviction as, again and again, they seek for God’s will to be done on earth, and in themselves. Asking for the grace to be obedient to God is not so much an expression of servility as it is an expression of hope—the hope that my ordinary life can play a part in God’s extraordinary plan. The Reformers were convinced that we are all God’s instruments for the working of his purposes, and so we pray for what we need in order to serve him faithfully.

A second recurring theme follows directly: utter dependence on God for everything needed to live for God. Here are prayers for wisdom, guidance, perseverance, protection, and for daily bread in all its forms, offered in the certainty that God alone is the source of such gifts. Turning to God with confidence starts by acknowledging one’s own weakness and helplessness, beginning with the confession of one’s own sin. Our dependence on God is never more profoundly apparent than when we stand (or fall) in need of his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, all of which are generously given through the shed blood of his only Son. For the Reformers, every prayer we offer is built upon the foundation of Christ’s saving Cross and Resurrection.

You may also be interested in:

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New from Paraclete Press- The Suitcase: A Story about Giving

Just in time for Autism Awareness Month in April, Paraclete publishes a beautiful new children’s book: The Suitcase by Jane G. Meyer. Today we’d like to offer these additional helpful resources to accompany the book! Download an Activity Guide, and a Q&A with the Author.
Thomas was maybe a little bit different: “he loved to spin in wobbly circles for hours while reciting the alphabet.”

One day Thomas packs a suitcase to travel to the Kingdom of Heaven, with applesauce and a spoon to feed the hungry, an extra jacket for a kid with nothing to wear, extra coins, a prayer book and a mustard seed to grow into a bush full of faith! Thomas and his whole family embark on a journey to help others.

Click here for a free preview of the entire book!
Pre-order your copy at paracletepress.com.

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Gregorian Chant Collection for Lent & Easter

Pascal Candle
Gregorian chant offers the ancient voice of hope during the season of Lent. In looking at the Eucharistic chants for the first few weeks of Lent, one finds the Scripture texts to be full of hope and expectancy. Chant has the unique ability to draw the listener into the heart of the Scripture it is illumining, and a window into the ancient understanding of Lent.

Be enriched this Lent and Eastertide with this special collection of recordings from Gloriae Dei Schola and the Monks of Solesmes that will tune your ear to the heart of God, or gift them to someone who might need that gentle touch.

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Regular Price: $118.65
Special 7 Recordings Collection Price: $74.95

 

Feeding Your Family’s Soul

Back in September we published a new book by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, Feeding Your Family’s Soul. This book has prompted an overwhelming response, and some fascinating conversations with religious ed directors, and Catholic school educators who have been looking for this kind of resource.  Br. Joel Sweet, who serves all of our Catholic churches in Hawaii, shared with us this great feedback from Chrislyn and her parish!

When speaking with Br. Joel and hearing about this book, Feeding Your Family’s Soul, I thought that this would be a wonderful way to increase family-style catechesis with the parents and grandparents of my RE ministries. I was hesitant at first to take it on, as I had just finished a book sale of the Mother Mary Coloring books and still had half my inventory! But after reading a preview of the book online, I thought I would give it a try for my Advent Parent Gathering. I gifted a family in the RE program a copy of Feeding Your Family’s Soul and asked for her feedback. She loved it so much, as she is a mother of three children: 1 in middle school, 1 in high school, and 1 in ctacosoupollege. Their schedules are so busy nowadays she has difficulty gathering them for meals. I asked her if she would select a recipe to cook for the Advent Parent Gathering and she chose Taco Soup. We cooked a huge pot of it and served it with bread. We used this simple meal to bring the parents together and practice from the book as if we were one family. We had five tables and each member of the table pretended to be a member of the family (mother, father, child, teen, grandparent, etc). They selected a chapter and practiced sharing the topic with one another while eating their soup and bread. At the end of the gathering, we had our little sales table, with the remaining coloring books, the Feeding Your Family’s Soul book and some other gift items. We sold a lot, especially as it was a perfect time for Christmas gifts! Many parents bought the book for themselves. We also placed a few copies of this book in our parish library so that others who do not want to purchase it may borrow it instead.

Chrislynn

Chrislyn Villena,
Religious Education Ministries,
St. Joseph Church, Hilo, HI

 

 

Watch the trailer with Br. Joel Sweet:

 

Prayers of the Reformers

On Friday, February 18th we celebrate the 461st anniversary of the death of Martin Luther, that great theologian and reformer of the Church. We know so much about the bold deeds and writings of this man and his many contemporaries who changed the world, that they have become almost legendary for us. But thankfully, we also know them just as men – people, sinners saved by grace like you and I – who clung to a relationship with God the Father and Christ their Savior, wrestling with their faith, and fervent in their prayer. On this anniversary of Luther’s death, and indeed throughout this important anniversary year of the Reformation, let us join Luther – not as Reformers, or theologians, but simply as men and women seeking to know more about God, and more about ourselves, through prayer. Paraclete offers this new book, Prayers of the Reformers, as a help and guide. And as Luther himself is credited with saying, “Grant that I may not pray alone with the mouth; help me that I may pray from the depths of my heart.”


From the Introduction

Prayers of the ReformersSome historical events have such a profound impact and such a multitude of consequences that the world is changed forever in their wake. The Protestant Reformation must certainly be counted among such events. Given the loud repercussions—social, theological, cultural, liturgical (among so many others)—that have continued to echo through the centuries, even to our own day, it might be easy to forget that behind the forces that brought about such change were devout people of faith, whose everyday lives were marked by times of prayer. The Protestant “reformers,” as they have come to be known, were also, and perhaps most importantly, “pray-ers.”

Certainly we learn much from the writings they have left, as well as the many records of their lives. But they have also left us their prayers, like windows into their own souls, and in their prayers we can meet them and learn from them. The prayers of the Protestant Reformers are filled with some of the central themes of their faith, perhaps first among them being an unshakable confidence in God’s supreme authority over all time and space. History is God’s workplace.

He does not stand afar off, but actively and intimately participates in the lives of people in order to show his love and bring about his will. Many of the Reformers’ prayers reflect this conviction as, again and again, they seek for God’s will to be done on earth, and in themselves. Asking for the grace to be obedient to God is not so much an expression of servility as it is an expression of hope—the hope that my ordinary life can play a part in God’s extraordinary plan. The Reformers were convinced that we are all God’s instruments for the working of his purposes, and so we pray for what we need in order to serve him faithfully.

A second recurring theme follows directly: utter dependence on God for everything needed to live for God. Here are prayers for wisdom, guidance, perseverance, protection, and for daily bread in all its forms, offered in the certainty that God alone is the source of such gifts. Turning to God with confidence starts by acknowledging one’s own weakness and helplessness, beginning with the confession of one’s own sin. Our dependence on God is never more profoundly apparent than when we stand (or fall) in need of his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, all of which are generously given through the shed blood of his only Son. For the Reformers, every prayer we offer is built upon the foundation of Christ’s saving Cross and Resurrection.

Third, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, these prayers express our need for illumination by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. In the writings of the Reformers there often appears an almost seamless movement between quotations from the Bible and phrases of prayer. As students of God’s word, they conversed with God using his own “language.” They believed that one must pray in order to understand the Scriptures, and that one must read the Scriptures in order to know how to pray. And, in both cases—when reading the Bible and when praying—they taught that we depend upon the Holy Spirit to shed God’s light upon minds and hearts that would otherwise be left blind to God’s handiwork. Praying for light is as important as praying for bread, for the Christian cannot live without either.

Fourth, trust in God stands as the chief motivator for prayer. Just as he is all-powerful, God is also all-loving. We express our needs and desires, sometimes cheerfully and sometimes despairingly, but always believing that God’s answers will spring from an eternal love that is as unchangeable as it is mysterious. We ask of God because we trust in God, that he is faithful to his promises, that he is always ready to hear and to answer, and that he never will turn away when we call out to him. All of the Reformers expressed this kind of trust through their prayers, and some of them showed it even in the moment of their violent deaths.

Finally, for the Reformers, the ultimate goal of praying was the same as it was for living—that God may be glorified.

Thanksgiving for God’s goodness is directed to the same end as asking for God’s forgiveness. In both cases, and in every case between, God’s answer will elicit praise from our hearts as well as from our lips. If our aim is to live “to the praise of his glory,” then woven through all of our prayers is the ultimate hope that, in Christ, God will unite all things in heaven and on earth, including us, into his everlasting kingdom. So we pray in order that his kingdom may come now, in whatever way it can, and that we will always be part of that coming.