Tag Archives: Catholic

When Faiths Collide: Finding Myself in Ash Wednesday

I stood in line for the symbolic smudge of ashes on the first day of Lent, unprepared for what that touch to my forehead would to do my heart.

In the glow of candlelight, tears spilled unbidden. And there she was again, standing at the altar. Skinny, smiling shyly as she posed in her white communion dress, mousy brown hair peaking from beneath a froth of netting, white anklets scrunched above black patent leather shoes. Ardent in her practice of a faith that formed her, the girl’s eyes glowed with the joy of taking her first communion. Her first confession.

Her first receiving of the ashes.

Did she know that five decades later, she’d stand at another altar and her heart would bust wide open, full with the joy of taking back the precious meaning of the ashes?

I turned away from Catholicism as a high school senior, lured by the popular youth group and upbeat music offered by my friends’ non-denominational church. I wanted guitars and games, not incense, chiming bells and Latin liturgy. A copy of The Living Bible went with me to college. My Catholic scriptures were left behind on a bedroom shelf.

An outdoor wedding ceremony officiated by the pastor of that non-denominational church set me on a path toward spiritual awakening and growth. Women in the church mentored and encouraged my still-ardent love for Jesus, and I learned to share Him with others. In years to come, pastors from various denominations and other churches contributed to a deepening faith that sustained me through trials — divorce, loss, cancer.

The security of a faith built on decades spent living out God’s Word among His people allowed me to listen when a gentle ripple of longing began to surface. In the beginning, I couldn’t put a word to the yearnings that bubbled in a quiet corner of my soul. I love my church. I’m in deep agreement with the doctrine and theology of our evangelical protestant beliefs and practices. But, like a lamp lit by a low-wattage bulb, my rock-solid faith lacked some of the glow that burned across the years from the altar of that little Catholic chapel of my childhood.

Then, last summer I met two faithful women doing a work of revival at a Catholic retreat center, and the yearnings slipped into place.

Beauty, symbolism, tradition, corporate prayer, holy seasons. I had shed them like an ill-fitting coat in my youth. Now, I felt the loss of their weight and warmth.

I soaked up the joy of those women doing a work for Jesus, offering to add a work of my own to their revival project. As we talked and planned, I recognized and understood what shined from their eyes when they spoke to me of tradition. Of miracles, healings, sacraments. Of a church history that, in many ways, all Christian faiths share.

It was familiar because it was part of me.

My stepmom passed away shortly after these women completed their project. It was inevitable that my grieving was bound up by their unwavering commitment to The Church. And by my stepmother’s. Her collection of Catholic icons, prayer books, rosaries, holy medals and other symbols of faith passed through my hands. They gave weight once again to what I’d known and lived, to the faith that formed me.

You can turn from one good thing and replace it with another. But can you wipe away the imprint that one thing left on your soul? Or can you acknowledge the stirrings and make space for them to be welcomed in the now?

Our evangelical Christian church chose to observe Ash Wednesday for the first time in many years. Dipping back into the dust of a tradition that lay at the foundation of my faith brought me face-to-face with the ardent little Catholic girl who was the Bride of Jesus.

Her eyes still glow.

“Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Genesis 3:19b

 

 

 

Catholic at Heart: Surprised by the Faith That Formed Me

I did a double-take.

Five grown men in long brown robes with bald heads, beards blowing in the breeze, were jogging barefoot down the sidewalk. I slowed my car and caught their happy faces in my rear-view mirror. This was not a sight I was used to seeing in the middle of the afternoon in this rural community. I called my sister-in-law, who runs a business in the small town I was passing through. She laughed and explained “Those are our brothers.”

My introduction to the Franciscan friars (brothers) living in this lakeside community began a journey that over the past several months has carried me back into my Catholic heritage and, I think, was ordained by God.

The bearded men reside in a white Cape Cod home on the grounds of Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center across from Sylvan Lake in Rome City, Indiana. They are novitiates in the Franciscan Friars Minor, a Catholic monastic order committed to living the rule of Saint Francis, which includes a vow of poverty. People in the community have grown used to seeing the barefoot gentlemen in the grocery store, at civic events and elsewhere in town. Growing up, I’d seen priests and nuns in their habits, but not a monastic brother.

The journalist in me wanted to know more — about the friars and about Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.

When I knocked on the door of the brick Victorian home that houses the center’s offices, I really wasn’t sure what I hoped to gain from my visit, other than to satisfy my curiosity. Standing in the lawn outside the house, I was transported back in time.

I was raised in the Church and grew up visiting the site of the Catholic retreat center on Sunday afternoons with my parents and grandparents. At that time, it was known as Kneipp Springs and was operated by nuns from the Order of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. The 65-acre compound was beautiful, dotted with gardens and green pathways, and amazing natural springs. It was our family’s own personal Catholic park. What I didn’t know as a child was that it was also a place of physical and spiritual healing. For 75 years, celebrities and devout Catholics from around the world had made the pilgrimage to Kneipp Springs to be immersed in the healing sulphur springs and to renew their Catholic faith.

MaryI left Catholicism when I headed off to college and eventually embraced the Protestant faith. About the time I returned home and began my career as a news reporter, Kneipp Springs was sold by the nuns to The Way International. The organization operated a residential religious school on the grounds for the next 20 years. Following their departure just before the start of the new millennium, the property changed hands many times as groups and individuals pursued various uses for the buildings and acreage. A year ago, the current owners, Catholics active in the diocese, decided to return the property to its original purpose as a place of healing and devotion to spiritual growth. A foundation was formed and the property was given a new name that reflected its devotion to Mary, the mother of Christ — Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.

I met several times with the foundation’s director and was inspired by and drawn to the work being done at the center. I looked for a way to get involved. Restoration of the 100-year-old chapel is underway and, of course, donations are needed there, and the grounds are slowly being returned to their original beauty. Manual labor is always needed.

I wondered if others might be as curious as I was about the Franciscan friars, the history of the property and the future of the retreat center. I also longed to reconnect with the Catholic Church of today.  I offered to use my gifts as a writer and designer to write articles for the local newspaper and to create a magazine for the center’s use. It’s been a mutually satisfying project.

A Healing Labor of Love

During the weeks I worked on the magazine, I also spent a lot of time with my parents. Mom’s health was declining and Dad couldn’t live entirely alone as she spent time in hospitals and in two different nursing homes. On one of my visits to the nursing home, I took Mom her rosary. I knew she needed to hold it in her hands.

It’s because of Mom that I have an emotional connection to the Catholic tradition. She’s actually my stepmother and when she married my Dad over 50 years ago — a divorced man with three little girls and a Presbyterian background — she gave us not only her unconditional love but the love of Christ as she shared with us her Catholic faith.

The morning after the magazine project was first put into the hands of visitors to Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center, Mom was found unresponsive by nursing home staff. She passed away one week later.

I hadn’t attended Mass for years. The rhythmic cadence of the liturgy, the smoky cloud of pungent incense, the priest’s lyrical prayers — all combined in a wave of nostalgia that was both comforting and unexpected. I sat in Mom and Dad’s little church for the funeral Mass last week, surrounded by people who shared her faith and knew her well, and found the words were still with me:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus…..”

I’ve yet to spend an afternoon getting to know the barefoot, bearded Franciscan friars living at Our Lady Mother of Mercy, but I’m hoping they’ll let me tell their story soon. Now that a window has opened on the faith that formed me, I’m not anxious for it to close.

Father David Mary

Father David Mary, head of the Franciscan Friars Minor, celebrates mass outdoors at Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.

chapel1

Brothers lead a Eucharistic procession past the chapel at Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.

 

 

Tell Me A Story: The Beauty of Midnight Celebrations

We have entered the most holy of seasons, a time of anticipation, celebration and recognition of Christ, the promised Messiah. Events and images of past Nativity seasons are stamped in my memory, like pictures on a Christmas card. Perhaps it is the same for you.

Christmas Memories buttonA few friends will join me to share favorite Christmas memories over the next several weeks. They will be featured here on Mondays and Fridays, kind of like bookends to the busyness of the Christmas season. Their stories and mine are my Christmas gift to you. I know you will enjoy them, and I hope you will share some of your own stories with family and friends.

The first sweet memory that comes to mind for me is wrapped in sensory cues that carry me back to Christmas eve in a little Catholic church in my hometown.

Celebrating mass at midnight was as much a part of my childhood Christmases as candy canes, presents and trips to my grandparents’ house in Chicago. I loved the excitement of being awake so close to the moment when Santa Claus would visit our stone house at the edge of town. My four siblings and I might struggle to stay awake, but arriving home after midnight mass meant we were that much closer to Christmas morning with presents under the tree and good food on the table.

When we were very young, my parents would send us to our rooms for a nap early in the evening then wake us in time to go to church. I remember bundling up to go out in the middle of the night, and in my memory, there was always snow and it was midnight-cold. Our frosty breath hung in the air as we walked down the sidewalk from our car and climbed the stone steps to the wooden doors of the church. Once the doors swung open, warmth and the fragrance of candles and incense pushed away the winter chill.

All was quiet inside the church, except for soft organ music. Another set of steep stairs took us to the holy water font and into the candlelit sanctuary. We knew without being told that we had to whisper, or not talk at all, as we made our way to the pews, genuflecting before slipping onto the wooden seats and making the sign of the cross without even thinking of the symbolism behind the gesture. A prayer offered up at the padded kneeling bench and perhaps the lighting of votive candles in the corner near the statue of Jesus were preludes to the main reason for venturing out on a cold Indiana winter night.Christmas candle bokeh

 

The clanging of incense jars hanging from chains signaled the entrance of the priest and his servers. Robed in white and gold with a purple sash draped around his neck, the priest walked slowly down the short aisle and greeted us “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”

Latin was still the language of the Catholic church when I was growing up, and I had much of the service in my memory almost before I knew what the words meant. I was a little saddened when Catholics began celebrating mass in English. I left the church soon after the change and I remember Latin now as a beautiful language shared by me and the mysterious Trinity as I knelt to worship. (When given a choice in high school, I chose to study Latin rather than Spanish. It’s a language I still love.)

We celebrated “high mass”, so for an hour we would stand, sing, kneel and sit as directed. When I was old enough, I walked with the others to the altar for Holy Communion. The movement helped to keep me awake — or at least that’s how I remember it. I’m sure some dozing took place as well.

Mass ended shortly after we received Holy Communion, once the priest had finished cleaning the golden vessels with his white cloths. A Christmas blessing was bestowed and we were dismissed with this admonition:

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Sometimes there were donuts or cookies and juice in the basement after mass, but most often we were anxious to hurry home in case Santa had arrived early. Driving through the middle of our little town, we passed the courthouse square, which was lit from top to bottom with strings of multi-colored lights. It was beautiful, especially in snowfall.

I am no longer a “practicing Catholic”, but I have returned for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve many times. The beauty of the service and the mystery of the night never fails to impress on me the wonder of The Nativity.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" - Gerard van Honthorst, 1625

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” – Gerard van Honthorst, 1625