Remembering Ruth

One of the highlights of my publishing career occurred in 1998, when I had the privilege of being invited to the cabin home of Billy and Ruth Bell Graham. At the time Servant was publishing a gift book with Ruth and her daughter Gigi, and it was hard not to dissolve in a mushy pile of goo and fan-girl all over myself when I entered that peaceful retreat and was warmly welcomed by Ruth herself. (Billy was on a trip at the time, as he often was.)

https://billygrahamlibrary.org/from-the-collection-of-ruth-bell-graham-divine-service/Living room of Billy and Ruth Bell Graham near Montreat NC (Photo Credit: Billy Graham Library)

She served iced tea on that hot July day, and I admired the mantel of the large stone fireplace and thought about the august company whose privilege it had been, before me, to sit in this space. She struck me as a deeply prayerful woman who made it possible behind the scenes for her husband to carry out a very public ministry — including counseling a half-dozen American presidents.

As a parting gift, Ruth gave me a volume of her poetry, which has a pride of place on my “fire shelf.” Here is one poem that seems particularly apt today:

There will be less someday —

much less,

and there will be More:

less to distract

and amuse;

More, to adore;

less to burden

and confuse;

More, to undo

the cluttering of centuries,

that we might view

again, That which star

and angels

pointed to;

we shall be poorer–

and richer;

stripped — and free:

for always there will be a Gift,

always

a Tree!

Ruth Bell Graham’s Collected Poems, p.127.

The Long Good-Bye

My parents and I in 2016.

Today’s first reading, on the Feast of All Souls, is comforts me today. At a time when both my parents are experiencing the physical and mental frailties of old age, this beautiful passage is reassuring: Better days are ahead.

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.

They seemed … to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction,

and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are at peace.

For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet their hope full of immortality;

chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed

because God tried them an found them worthy of himself.

Wisdom 3:1-3

As a Catholic, I believe in the reality of purgatory. As a daughter who has walked with my mom through the slow goodbye that is dementia, I am confident that this life, too, can be a kind of refining fire. It took her more than seventy years for her eyes to be opened to the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith … but when at last she saw it, she embraced it of her own free will. And in that moment, a long-standing rift between us was healed.

So on this feast of All Souls, I am thankful to have experienced this miracle. And I am grateful that God saw fit, in the case of my family, to begin the healing in this life, rather than the next.

My Mite-y Morning Offering

Sometimes I think the movie Groundhog Day could have been written about my life. Every day at 7:00 my cell phone alarm goes off and I grope for the night table to slam it off. Gretta, nestled between my husband and me, shakes her head forcefully, her ear-flapping an urgent warning of the waterworks that are about to ensue if I don’t high-tail it out of bed and let her out for her morning constitutional. I let both dogs out and stand there in my pj’s (my very matronly, covered from neck to ankles two-piece flannels) and think about what I need to do that day. Then I go inside, get ready, come out and make breakfast for my mother or husband or both, then toddle downstairs to greet my computer.

Wedding day …. waltzing on the church steps

“Good morning, Lord.” My turquoise rosary beads are just where I left them, draped over my favorite picture of Craig and me on our honeymoon and beside my favorite Willowtree figurine of a weary mother rocking her toddler, both of them draped in a fleecy blanket. You cannot see either of their faces (this is Willowtree, after all), but somehow you know they are utterly contented. No one but them in the whole, wide world.

This is my favorite time of the day. Not because I’m a morning person — Lord knows I’d sleep till noon if I didn’t have dog duty. But when I first approach my computer, push the button, and wait for the desktop to fire up, there is a pause in the universe. The veil between heaven and earth parts for just a moment, an open invitation to spend those first few seconds … listening. Waiting. Sorting through the wheat and chaff in my mind and figuring out what needs to be done that day. Knowing that likely it WON’T all get done, but asking God to guide my steps to the most important things.

Is anybody listening to me as I rattle off my wish list? I believe so, but that’s not really why I do it. Nor is my “morning offering” particularly spectacular, more like the poor widow’s mite. (I do my best thinking after lunch.) Rather, it’s an important reminder that this is the day the Lord has made to do the things HE has for me to do. The rest can wait. The rest doesn’t matter.

I was recently invited to compile a special prayer book for moms, gathering the favorite prayers and prayer stories of the Catholic women from all walks of life, to bring to life the prayers we pray — classic and original, prayers of praise and contrition and thanks and beseeching. It’s already been a fun project, connecting with women I’ve never met — or haven’t spoken to for years. I know I’m going to learn so much from this … and I want to invite you to come along for the ride. (If you haven’t already signed up to get my posts in your mailbox, this might be a good time to do that.)

How does your day begin? Do you luxuriate in your dedicated prayer corner or (like one woman I know) compose your morning offering over the kitchen sink? What’s your prayer story?

Join the Global Prayer Challenge!

Last week I was contacted by Delphine Ang, an energetic Catholic mother in the Philippines who has a vision to support other moms during this challenging time. She has invited me and a number of other speakers and authors from all over the world to encourage Catholic moms in their vocation during this tough time. You can register for the event here.

Some of my favorite praying Catholic moms are involved in this: Emily Jaminet, Elizabeth Ficocelli, Mary Lenaburg, Kate Wicker, and many others. If you are in need of a spiritual booster shot, why not join us?

 #praying #prayerworks #prayforus #prayworks #praywithoutceasing #praywithfaith #praywithoutcease #prayingmama #prayingmomma #prayingmother #prayingmom #prayermovesmountains #mothersprayer #MomsInPrayer #prayerwarrior #prayfortheworld #prayforourkids #prayforourchildren #prayerful #MamaMary #praymom #PrayForGrace, #PrayerMovement #prayerchangeseverything #praychangesthings #prayersmovemountains #globalprayerday #GlobalPrayer #GlobalPrayerWeek #globalprayer

Fighting Scandals and Spirits

BlaiLike so many, I’ve been watching the unfolding of events surrounding the release of the PA grand jury report, and the subsequent response of laity and clergy alike. One aspect of the scandal that has been particularly tough to stomach is the revelation (to me at least) is the prevalence of sexually active clergy (both gay and straight) that has short-circuited the spiritual authority of the Church, reducing men who should have been warriors and spiritual fathers to weak and ineffectual CEOs fluent in empty assurances who would rather meet than lead. What are we to do? So far, even the Vatican has been distressingly silent on the matter. How are we to separate the sheep from the goats, and restore the moral authority of our leaders?

In the seventh chapter of Judges, the Lord gives Gideon the blueprint for raising the army that would conquer their feared enemies, the Midianites. “The LORD said to Gideon: You have too many soldiers with you for me to deliver Midian into their power, lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say, ‘My own power saved me.’” (Judges 7:2). After reducing the company of 22,000 soldiers to 300 stalwart, brave men, the Lord delivered into the hands of the Israelites not just the two princes of Midian, but all their troops as well. Reading this story, it seemed to me that a similar winnowing process is in store for the Church. The Lord needs not thousands of “career soldiers” who will let down their guard and seek to their own comfort, but a handful of faithful, vigilant warriors in order to take back the ground the enemy has occupied.

But how? It wasn’t until I picked up and began reading this book by Adam Blai that both the reason for this standoff and its path of resolution began to take shape. His book  Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcisms (Emmaus) offers insights into the spirit world and articulates the rules that govern demons, malevolent spirits that roam the earth as fallen angels. Reading between the lines (he does not directly reference the scandals), Blai provides sobering insights about how we got to where we are today … and what needs to happen for our leaders to become instruments in the hands of God that will purify his Bride.

Reading this book, I was reminded of two spiritual principles that go to the heart of the current crisis: First, that darkness and hiddenness — including self-deception and rationalization — are among the devil’s most powerful tools. Second, it is those who are most ardently pursuing God who are most likely to draw the devil’s fire. Blai reminds us in his reflection on the book of Job.

The Book of Job has two clear lessons: God is all-powerful and cannot be hindered, and the Devil has to ask permission from God for everything he does. We see that both temptation and trials come from Satan, but it is God’s protection and decrees which are important, not the Devil… People, particularly people the most committed to God, are targeted by the Devil and God allows them to be tested. We see this play out in the life of Job and in the lives of many of the saints, who are often tested fiercely by the Devil as they draw closer to God. The end reward of this struggle is the restoration of all that Satan was allowed to wound, and abundant graces beyond that in the form of an eternal life in heaven with God. (p.112-113, emphasis mine).

So … what is the pathway to healing? Ultimately, lasting justice will not be found through our legal system (though this may be the means by which the full extent of the problem must come to light). The Bride of Christ, deeply wounded by the sins of her representatives, can never be healed through a temporal legal process, by compensating victims, or by placating the public. It will come only through the winnowing of the army of the Lord so that, purified and disciplined, they are ready to serve the Bride with humility and devotion, even unto death. They must seek out the wounded, and show them the mercy of God until they open their hearts to God for healing and to find the peace they seek through the grace of forgiveness.

Healing will come when those called to be on the front lines of this great spiritual war stand up and fight to take back the ground that has been occupied by the enemy. These warriors must embrace the principles of discipline and authentic love, and refuse to give the devil the tiniest foothold through moral compromise. Only then can they make themselves battle ready, and move forward to resist the enemy at the prompting of God himself, as we read in Ephesians 6.

Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17).

Come, Lord Jesus, pour forth your spirit, and renew the face of the earth. Give us courage to persevere, even to the shedding of blood, to bring your light to the darkest places of the world, and to restore the glory of your Kingdom. Jesus, we trust in you.

Mother Mary, embolden your children for battle, that we might imitate you by resisting evil and crushing the serpent’s head. Take every priest to your Immaculate Heart, and enkindle in each of them the courage of a lion and the humility of a dove. Cover them with your mantle, and protect them from evil. Give them hearts of purest love, the most powerful and irresistible force in the universe.

When Mom Prays…

prayerTonight, I’ll be honest, felt like a big, fat fail in the parenting department. I’ll spare you the details (or perhaps it’s me I’m sparing), but at one point I looked into the snarky face of one of my children (ha) and thought (very loudly): “I don’t know if I can hold on another day.” Then I made the horrific mistake of opening my mouth and telling her exactly what I thought of her and her behavior. (Woops. Kind of gave it away there.)

My mother was sitting in the next room, and there is no way she couldn’t have heard what was going on. But she didn’t say a word. All through dinner she was quiet. Then I took the kids to youth group (“Yes, you DO still have to go even though you are 18, young man”) and came back just in time to hear of another complication that will be re-entering my life in two more weeks. *sigh*

Even after icing and heating it, my arm was throbbing like someone had set it on fire. But I made my way downstairs to put mom to bed and read to her. When we finished our devotional read, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to pray for. Her reply was immediate and simple: “I’d like to pray for you.”

My eyes were full of tears before she said the first word. I was a little afraid, truth be told, because there was no hiding the fact that I had been short, and mean, and cranky all day. Apart from the hour or so we spent in the Japanese garden in Mishawaka, and the hour I spent unconscious in my room afterwards. But you’d never know it as I heard the words fall from her lips, kind and gentle like rainfall.

“Lord, thank you for my daughter. Thank her for everything she has done for me, and how hard she works every day. Help her to listen to her body, and to be gentle with herself. Help her to know how much she is loved. Help us both to know which way to go in the days ahead, so we will be doing just what you want us to do.”

It’s been a long time since someone prayed for me like that. It kind of took my breath away. And suddenly I saw myself as my mother sees me — someone who is just doing her best with the hand she has. And someone who wants to do the right thing.

Later, as I sat there thinking about her prayer, I realized that this is probably what my daughter needs from me, too. Someone who will be gentle and kind. Someone who knows she is just doing her best.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for my daughter….”

A Caregiver’s Psalm 23: Through the Valley of the Shadow of Dementia

sheep1The Lord is our shepherd, what more could we want?

He guides us to rest in electric recliners, to sip cool water.
When confusion invades, he bids me peace.
He diverts and reassures me as is needed,
And stays very close at the whisper of his name.

Though we traverse in the shadowy places,
where memories threaten to overwhelm and bring pain.
I will not fear tomorrow, for you give me strength.
You lift me high up above the turmoil, and help me
to see that one day we shall laugh together again.

We set the table together at suppertime,
and I pray that the pills do their job.
And that the Spirit will breathe peace
to fill in those rough places.

You fill up my head with love
and reassurance, and I smile
As once again we celebrate
being together as a family.

You are goodness and mercy,
and will never leave us, even at the hour of death,
When at last we will dwell in your house,
and all pain and suffering will be gone forever.

amen

Heidi is on “Women of Grace” this week!

Teresa-21Birthdays and wedding anniversaries are so often opportunities to celebrate, to recall the past year and anticipate (usually with joy) all the new year will bring.

Today marks a special one-year anniversary, the release of my book Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  On Monday  “Women of Grace” will be airing its program about the book. Try to tune in when you can to EWTN (mornings at 11:00 EST, evenings at 11:30 EST).

If you would like to order ten or more copies for a parish group, to bring in the Advent season, please contact me at Heidi.hess.saxton(at)gmail.com, and I can offer you a special discount: $10/copy, postage paid!

Today marks another anniversary for me as well: Exactly one year ago today, a friend wrote to remind me, I suddenly and unexpectedly lost my job at Franciscan Media, giving me a two-month hiatus as I thought about what I would do next. When Ave invited me back to do some acquisitions work for them, it was like going home again. Although, of course, it is true what they say: You can never really go home again. People and relationships are constantly changing, for better or worse. And we must change with it.

This time of year can be a tough time for those who are seeking work, or who find themselves otherwise in transition. As I continue to work for Ave, I find myself facing another transition: my mother is coming to stay with us. Her dementia prevents her from living at home with my dad, and I’m wondering what my life will be like a month from now, six months from now. My prayer is that she and my daughter will bond in a way that makes our home a happy place. My prayer is that the symptoms of the disease that has damaged my mother’s mind and her associations will abate, and her heart will find peace. My hope is that she will spend the last months of her life feeling the love of her family. My hope is that, day by day, God will grant us all the grace we need to do what needs to be done.

Today I’d like to offer this little prayer for those who are facing a similar personal Everest.

May the Lord keep you ever in his care.

May our Lady hold you in her mother’s heart.

And until we all meet together in the new Jerusalem,

May we journey all together in his peace.

 

Crowned with Peace

Queen of PeaceToday was the annual PeaceFest at our parish, and Bishop Rhoades was the homilist at the event. He mentioned that this year marks the centennial not just of the apparitions at Fatima, but also the year the mother of Jesus came to be known as “Queen of Peace.” In his book, The Life of Pope Benedict XV, Walter Peters notes: “On May 5,1917, he decreed that the invocation, ‘Queen of peace,’ be added to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  [pp. 224-225]

This fascinating icon, which I found on the Villanova University website, was written by Father Richard G. Cannuli. It depicts a woman of Middle Eastern origins, reminding us that Mary is revered by both the Christian and Muslim traditions (the Qaran refers to her as “Maryam”). And so it is fitting to ask her to pray for peace in the world for all her children. But in these recent weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about her more and more often, wondering what she would say to us about the pathway to peace even within our own land.

During her own lifetime, the Holy Land was a hotbed of political unrest; zealots and Romans and simple families like her own just trying to survive in a climate often full of conflict and tension. As she saw her own son begin his public ministry, how she must have prayed as she saw him get drawn into the political turmoil. Where did she find peace, at such a time as that?

As I watch my own children grow older, and their own lives erupt in conflict and confusion, the temptation is to rush into the middle of it, trying to solve their problems for them, trying to make them choose prudence. But at 15 and 17, that isn’t always going to happen. And so, when I cannot protect them … Mother Mary, stay close by, and pray for us all. Give us the peace that comes from knowing One who is never surprised by anything we do, loves us just the same.

Lonely at Church?

clasped-hands-541849_1920Do you ever feel invisible at church? Have you ever gone to a church event and felt lonely? Do you watch people chatting around the room as your kids attack the donut table, and crave some kind of personal connection?

I’ve felt this way, especially after moving to a new home or church. Not knowing how my kids will respond in new social situations, I’m always on “high alert,” and it’s hard to relax. It doesn’t help that I am a lot like my father, and often feel anxious about breaking into new groups — rather surprising, given how much practice I’ve had at it over the years. But there you have it.

I’ve complained to God about this more than once, how Catholic parishes are so different from the church I grew up in, a country church of about 200 families where everyone knew everyone else by name and birthday. They were generous and welcoming to a fault. The year I went to Senegal, West Africa on a year-long mission trip, my church family raised the entire amount I needed–almost $12,000–in just a couple of weeks.   These were not wealthy people — but they welcomed us as family.

When I became Catholic, the very things I most loved about the Church — her rituals, her formality, her mystery — also made it difficult to experience that same sense of family with my brothers and sisters in the pew. A name in the bulletin was the only clue that someone had a medical need. If someone lost a job or had a financial emergency, there were food pantries and St. Vincent de Paul shops … but apart from Elizabeth Ministries setting up meals for new moms, I had no idea who needed cookies.

Women’s group. Choir. Youth Group. Couple’s “date night.” Donuts after Mass.  People were nice enough — at least one person always told us they were glad we came. But I was still longing for that sense of belonging, and never quite finding it.

Right after Easter, I decided I would start going to daily Mass until I left for Costa Rica, to volunteer at St. Bryce Mission. At Queen of Peace, morning Mass is at 8:15, preceded by morning prayer — a chance to learn how to pray the red book! Score! I could drop off my kids at school and go down the street to church, and get in a few minutes at Adoration before morning prayer and Mass. The same twenty people or so were there every day … my friend Kelly showed me how to use the Book of Christian Prayer.

Soon I was a regular, getting smiles and nods — and the connections began to come. Yesterday the president of the Jubilee women’s group came up to say they had decided to donate the missionary offering to me this year, to help St. Bryce Mission. And today between prayer and Mass, a man came up to introduce himself and tell me how much I reminded him of his sister. “She’s a beautiful woman, and so are you!”

As he turned to find his way back to his own pew, I sat and thought about what I’d just experienced. I realized that my approach of trying to get friends, of wanting to receive rather than to give, had been part of the problem. And I discovered that giving, in prayer and presence, is a wonderful way to belong in God’s family.