The Interior Garden

Have you considered lately the condition of your heart? I’m not talking about the results of your latest EKG. I’m wondering about your spiritual heart as I wonder about my own. The other night I had a vivid dream that I was giving a teaching about the fertile soil of our hearts. When I woke up, I had difficulty understanding what this meant for me. Fertile soil of the heart sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?  But just yesterday the Gospel from Mark 4:1-20 was about just that and it made me think once again about my dream.  Perhaps I needed to do my own heart examination.  What did my “heart soil” look like? Was anything going to grow there this year?

As some of you know from my past blogs, I do not have a green thumb, and producing anything in my vegetable garden has been a real challenge. Right now the garden is winter bare. The dirt is frozen and hardened. But as soon as the weather begins to warm, weeds will immediately and wildly sprout without warning. Thorny brush is already present and there are mini Stone Mountains (rocks) scattered throughout. It’s going to take a lot of work to clear it all out in order to grow some tasty tomatoes.  And it will take some work to till the soil in the garden of my heart, too.

Lately it seems there have been events in our country and in my church that have deeply saddened me. I am angry, disheartened, feeling helpless, embittered and my thoughts are sometimes filled with rage.  Why is there so much evil? Why is there so much division and disregard for human life? Why are people so eager to destroy and slander another’s name and reputation? Engaging in conversation with another only seems to bring about more conflict, especially in social media. It’s downright frightening! So how do I correctly respond to this onslaught of negativity, not only within others, but within myself? I guess it’s time to till the interior garden.

First, I need to recognize what may be choking any seed that is planted. Those prickly brambles of impatience and selfishness and the weeds of anger and resentment with deep roots will need to be pulled.  All the rocks of pride and judgementalism, which impede any spiritual growth need to go, as well.  Secondly, I need to turn over the hardened soil so that a softened heart will allow the seed room to grow. Next, rich nutrients will need to be added, like courage, wisdom, forgiveness and prayer. Preparing the soil is indeed hard work!

I know it seems too early to talk about outdoor gardening when the air is frigid, but when we’re talking about the heart, now is the perfect season. So, dear friends, what will your garden look like this year? Let’s pray.

Lord, with the help of Your Holy Spirit, may this soil of our hearts become fertile so that it may produce abundant fruit. May the blossoms of joy, peace and justice be a fragrant offering in thanksgiving for all You have done for us. And may Your raindrops of mercy water and nourish the seeds You have lovingly planted.  Amen.


“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed feel on rocky ground where it has little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. And when the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it produced no grain. And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit. It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. He added, ‘Whoever has ears ought to hear.’” Mark 4:1-20


Wedding Vows


“I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”  These were some of the words that John and I said to one another forty seven years ago on the day we were married. We also said them last week at the end of Mass. Father announced to everyone that we were celebrating our wedding anniversary and he called us to the front of the church. We were then asked what we said to one another on that day so many years ago. We answered that we vowed to love one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. Father gave us a wonderful blessing and the congregation applauded as we proudly made our way back to our seats.


Later that day, I thought long and hard about those vows. Forty seven years ago, as we stood at the altar in our beautiful wedding attire with stars in our eyes, we had absolutely no idea what those promises would come to mean. We were blissfully in love with not much money in our bank accounts. But it didn’t matter because we were so crazy about each other that we felt could conquer the world. Those first few years, we lived very modestly, the first year being in a one room basement apartment in Richmond, Indiana.  We lived on mac and cheese, hot dogs and pizza. My mother used to say, “When you’re in love you can eat beans and still be happy.” And it was true. We hardly ever argued and life was so amazing. Things got even better when we found out we were expecting a baby. Our little family was beginning to grow.


We still lived modestly in a two bedroom duplex in Fairfield, Ohio but it was plenty of room for our new addition. But now our finances were really stretched. We needed new furniture, a newer car, and lots of baby items. Our love still conquered all the challenges but it was time for a job change with a bigger salary and that meant a move to a new city away from our family and friends. And we were pregnant again. It was a frightening time because the pregnancy was in jeopardy and I had to have complete bed rest for two months. It was one of the hardest experiences as we didn’t know if our baby would survive. Our faith, which had been put on the back burner, kicked in, and with the help of new-found friends who prayed for us and encouraged us, and with the healing power of God, we were brought through that “fiery trial”. (1st Peter)


Another difficult pregnancy and a sick baby rocked our world once again. We were coming to grips with the fact that our marriage vows meant that we had committed to go through the rough places together, that with the help of God, we could do this. And on and on it went; lots of illnesses, sometimes very serious ones, broken bones and trips to the emergency room, money problems, difficult decisions, loss of our parents, children learning to drive, meetings with teachers and principals, graduations, children leaving home for college and racking up debt to pay for it. But we somehow made it through, only slightly scathed with grey hair and worry wrinkles. Now we have grandchildren who bring us more joy than we could ever imagine in our “old age”. It seems like a reward.


Sometimes I feel that we were that young couple just a few short years ago. How did we get here forty seven years later with all that occurred in our lives and still be madly in love? I have to say that the promises we made to each other weren’t always easy to keep at times. Sometimes they seemed impossible. Sometimes staying sane was # 1 on my to-do list. Some days I would cry as I didn’t know how I could make one more dinner for three always hungry boys and make it to ball practice on time. There were days I was so tired I thought I would fall asleep at the wheel picking up the kids from school. And there were many times that my wonderful husband drove me crazy. Even being married to a saint can be hard!


I now see my own children with many of the same challenges and I pray for their marriages and their family life every day. I know how hard it is, how mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting it is, but I also know it can be done.


There is a visual in my mind of a beautiful fabric that represents our marriage through the years. Many of the threads are of bright colors reminding us of the joyful times in our relationship, the births of our children and grandchildren, the weddings, the amazing family and friends who were always there for support. Some threads are a deep gray in color which tell the story of difficult illnesses, broken relationships, deaths. But there is a thread of gold running through that represents our faith. This thread has become thicker and more prominent as the years have passed. This is a reminder of the presence of a loving God within our marriage. He is the one who has given us abundant graces and strength all along that allowed us to remain faithful to those vows declared many years ago. In a few short years, God willing, we will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. It truly will be a golden anniversary!

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Recently, I made a visit to the small Blessed Sacrament chapel at my parish right after Mass. I made my way to my seat and was trying to settle myself to a place of inner silence when a little girl, no older than two, followed her mother into the chapel. I couldn't take my eyes off her as she was such a beautiful child. As her mother knelt down, this sweet child proceeded to the back of the chapel to hold the door for others who were entering. Once everyone was inside, she confidently walked directly to the altar and made a deep bow. I was trying hard to focus on the true Presence but this little girl now had my full attention. She found a chair and tried, with much difficulty, to climb up onto it. Her mother was in prayer but she heard the sigh of her child and instantly helped her. Once seated she reached around to the back of the chair to get a rosary and fingered the beads. Not long after she became fidgety and the mother quietly took her by the hand and they quickly departed. The sweet little one was gone but I couldn't help but meditate on what I had just experienced.

Having been a teacher of little ones for over 25 years, I readily admit that I often learned from the children. Their hearts are pure and they are the most loving, honest and trusting people around. Jesus said that we must become like them if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  This little girl in the chapel was a distinct reminder of that. She felt comfortable in God's house, welcoming others. Am I welcoming to all, as well? She was bold as she approached His throne in confidence. Do I ever worry about what others may think of my own boldness of faith? And as she struggled onto her chair, she knew that her mother would help her. I think of the Mother of my Lord, my Mother, too. When I am struggling, do I turn to her in prayer for assistance, trusting that she is there to help me and to intercede for all my needs?

Dear Jesus, give me true humility of heart and help me to become like the little child in the chapel. Give me the grace to let go of so many worldly concerns and to live my faith with simplicity. May I have a heart filled with love and respect for others and may I come to You with reverence and with confidence in Your love for me. And when I am weak, let me feel the warmth of my Mother's arms around me, protecting me. Thank You for teaching me a beautiful lesson in a most unexpected way.

Look Up

I’m an extrovert. For those of you who know me well this comes as no surprise. I love people. I love to run into a friend whom I haven’t seen in a while and it’s a wonderful experience to meet strangers and to listen to them as they share about themselves. It’s such a joy for me to hear their interesting stories. And it’s touching when I observe how easily someone tells me about their son’s new job or a daughter’s high honors or how a serious illness has impacted the family. When I look at their faces, I see beyond the wrinkles and the furrowed brow. Their eyes speak volumes. Some encounters are forever imprinted in my heart.


A few weeks ago I traveled alone to Denver. When I finally got to my gate and settled into my seat, I turned to the young woman next to me to ask her a simple question. She didn’t respond. After I few seconds, she pulled one earplug out and said, “What?” It startled me initially but it shouldn’t have. I noticed all around me were folks on their cell phones or iPads. It truly was a sight to see! Hundreds of people sitting next to one another yet there was no eye contact with anyone. The screens separated us all from one another. Honestly, I do understand that many are conducting business of one kind or another as they travel and of course, sometimes we just don’t want to talk to anyone. But the experience was unsettling to me because it seemed to be an icon of our times. We are becoming increasingly isolated and many of our “friends” are virtual. Are live conversations happening anywhere?


I don’t like being cynical. It goes against my grain, but this phenomenon is disturbing to me and I am concerned about our millennials, our teens and our little ones. It’s even affected my own generation. And yes, I am guilty, too. We all have so much to learn from one another but most of our information is coming from somewhere “out there”. Society seems to be groaning with heavy sighs of loneliness and discontent. The decibel level of arrogance and anger and division is painful and I wonder how our love and care for one another can be restored.


I want to hear your story. I want to know what’s going on in your life. You are more important to me than the text message that just went off. Can we, this Lent, be a little more aware of who is sitting next to us, be it a family member or a stranger who just asked you what time it is? That someone may need your attention, your smile, your listening ear. Could that someone be the Christ you need to encounter? Or are you being called to be Christ for someone else?


Lord, help us to be more aware of your presence in others. Let us be attentive to their voice. Let us see You in their eyes, in their tears, in their smiles. Wean us from things that separate us from what is real and right in front of us.

Be Still

Silence. It’s hard to come by. But it was the one thing I sorely needed after nine days of travel to visit family and friends, including a relative who was on her final journey into eternity. While all the visits were very pleasant, I longed for a period of quiet reflection. The last stop before returning home was the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardsville, Kentucky, home of the Trappist monks, the most famous being Thomas Merton. As I exited the car, the serenity of the environment immediately enveloped me. The only sounds I heard were the birds singing and a slight rustling of the leaves as a gentle wind blew through them. It already felt like a healing balm to my spirit.


I slowly made my way to the church and was relieved to discover I was the only one inside. I tiptoed into the darkened space out of respect for the stillness. I could no longer hear the birds chirping or the sound of the wind. There was nothing. My ears almost ached as I naturally strained to hear any sound. It was perfectly still. I began to be conscious of my hands in my lap and feeling how quietly I was breathing. I tried to settle in and just place myself in the presence of God but it was hard to let go of my thoughts and try to relax in this most beautiful setting. I knew that meditation and contemplation needed time so I kept bringing my thoughts back to the Lord and the sweetness of the moment. Suddenly, the organist began practicing on his instrument and I was jolted out of my silence. I wanted to protect that space and felt annoyed that it was interrupted. Out of frustration I got up to leave and opened the large wooden doors and eyed a lovely spot outside under some trees. The Monastery sits up on a hill and the view was breathtaking. I sat down on a bench and began to once again relish the stillness. But it didn’t last long. Several chatty women decided to sit nearby, and while their voices were somewhat muffled, they couldn’t be ignored. Once again I moved to another area. Finally, I regained some semblance of peace and I was so grateful to have the time to reflect and to allow my restless spirit to be refreshed.  How seldom it is that I am able to be completely still!


Noise is all around us! We unconsciously turn on the radio or listen to music when we get in the car. We flip on the tv without a thought. We check our phones day and night and watch videos on FB. We do these things out of habit. Some of us have children or grandkids and those beautiful sounds are part of life. But even with all of that, is there a time when we can be quiet, even teaching the children how to do this sometimes?  Can we begin to make efforts to remove sound from our daily lives? Can we change the way we move through our daily lives and slowly make time for silence? I’m not saying we need to live like monks, but God’s voice comes when we are still, and shouldn’t we make space for that, even for a few minutes out of our day? God may be silent, too, allowing us to perfectly rest in His arms. We need that restoration, not only of our minds, but our bodies and our spirits, as well.


Oh Lord, we live in a busy world. We ask that You would show us ways to be still.

My Designer

I learned a lot of things from my father. But I need to tell you a few things about him first. Joseph Stavale was a young handsome immigrant man who traveled the sea at seventeen years of age from his home country of Italy into Ellis Island in 1915.  He carried with him his trade. Dad was a tailor. While he didn't have much formal education, he was gifted nonetheless. His travels led him to different cities where he developed his skill into a clothing designer. He could design and create beautiful clothing for high level execs and the like. My image of him is in a white pressed shirt, sleeves rolled up, with a tape measure around his neck. I remember stopping in the tailor shop from time to time as it was close to my school. He would show me the latest bolts of fabrics that had been imported from England. I loved the feel of silk and cashmere and would gently run my fingers along the material. I'd watch him carefully measure clients so that the suit he was making would fit perfectly. I'd see patterns that he had made on the huge cutting table, the tailor chalk and lots of needles and spools of thread. He was a real craftsman. And my mother was an incredible seamstress, too. She would put the finishing touches on each jacket as she would hand sew in the lining and do the button holes by hand.  And so began my love for clothes.

Dressing beautifully was very important to me. I was the daughter of a tailor so I made sure I was well-dressed. I had a job to pay for the pretty things I purchased as there wasn't any extra house money. Inherently, I learned to check the inside of a garment to see if the seams were straight and well sewn and that the patterns matched. And the fabric would have to be lovely. Not only did I love women's clothing but I loved to windowshop in the men's department. Just for fun, I'd pick up shirts and ties that would look great together and look through the suits to see if they were well made.  I'd also sometimes sketch clothes that I would like to wear and show them to my father who gave a slight nod of approval. I had impractical visions of becoming a designer myself  but I couldn't sew a stitch to save my life.  It didn't matter, though. I had my father who could make a pattern from a picture of a coat I had seen on the cover of  Seventeen Magazine. And he made my beautiful yellow linen dress for my senior tea. It still hangs in my closet. Yes, I wanted and needed to look good in everything I wore, and I spent many hours in front of the mirror to make sure things were just right.

My father taught me much more than appreciating all things beautiful. He taught me about treating others with respect, about being generous, and most of all, the importance of being a person of
integrity. Dad's been gone over 35 years now.  I miss him but the lessons remain imbedded in my heart and soul. And those lessons about the kind of person that he expected me to become have drawn me to pursue a more deeply spiritual life. I've grown older and hopefully wiser and while my penchant for nice clothes remains, I've discovered that my interior life is more important than any exterior could portray. So I look to another Designer. An Interior Designer. Dad would have wanted that for me.

Recently I came across a scripture from Colossians 3 that spoke directly to my heart. "...Clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility and patience." It continues, "Over all these virtues, put on love which binds the rest together and makes them perfect." While outerwear covers
our appearance, is it not more important how we cover our souls? Our flesh is dying more and more each day and these earthly clothes are temporary. Yet we will carry our souls into eternity. Isn't it time to greatly care for this part of us that will last forever? I love the visual of dressing myself each day with mercy, kindness, humility and patience.  And then covering it all with love. It might be a wonderful practice to do this each morning during a time of prayer. The Father is a brilliant designer and each virtue will fit us perfectly. The only problem is, the alterations last a lifetime. We must be
patient. In the end, though, He hopefully will give his nod of approval.

Mea Culpa

It's been a heartbreaking week in the aftermath of the massacre in Charleston, S.C. How horrified we all were when we heard that nine innocent people studying the Word of God were gunned down senselessly because of the color of their skin. They welcomed the stranger as Jesus would have had them do. And then the stranger, like a monster out of a horror movie, fired upon them spilling the blood over the church where they loved worshiping God. How could someone only 21 years of age harbor so much hate in his heart? We may never know how or when evil began to fill his mind.

The families of the victims, or martyrs as I think they should be called, and the city of Charleston bravely and powerfully came together to bring a message of peace and forgiveness. The nation marveled at this display of love in the face of hatred. It's something we rarely see.  As I watched the television coverage of black and white people embracing one another in a show of unity, I wept. Oh, God, I prayed, if we could only continue this love and care for one another! But little by little the nay sayers, the divisive commentators, who almost salivate at anything that might spark a riot, the politicians who only want to gain something for themselves began to tear down what was being built up. It dawned on me that what is so desperately needed in our country is an examination of conscience. If you are Catholic you know immediately what I mean. It's what we do in preparation of making a confession to a priest. We look at our behavior, our words, and even the things we should have done or said and didn't.

It seems that we only want to blame someone or something else when there is a problem. Things are just never our fault, right? It's really hard to admit that we've done wrong, that we didn't live up to our responsibility, that we neglected a friend or failed to call or visit someone in need. It's simply so much easier if we can place the blame on another or on our circumstances. But it's time for us to begin to take a look inside and see what is out of whack. Why are we angry, prideful, impatient, irritable, ready to lash out at whatever gets in our way? We need to seek Peace, to allow Love to enter in and heal all those areas that have been wounded.

Jesus Christ is the Healer, the Divine Physician, the One who can bind up the hurts of the past. If you take the time to look deep within your heart and ask the Holy Spirit to come, He will reveal those areas that need His touch. Then you can view all your brothers and sisters, regardless of race and color, and embrace them in holy love. Yes, we have many differences but we are one family with God as our Father. May He draw us closer to Himself and to one another. May the love that He gives each one of us overcome any evil that tries to enter in. God bless you!

Seek Ye First

Whenever I travel out of town, one of the first things I do is search for the nearest Catholic Church. Somehow, no matter how new my surroundings are, I feel such a sense of the familiar as I enter the holy space. It's like being home. Today was no different.  My husband had a conference in Indianapolis, and as soon as we settled into our hotel, we went for a walk in the downtown area and  discovered St. John the Evangelist Church. We were pleasantly surprised to find it open as some of the churches are locked during the day. We entered quietly so as not to disturb any worshipers but then found we were the only ones there. Initially, I felt disappointed that not one person was present to our Lord but then I was selfishly enjoying myself as I walked ever so slowly throughout the vast interior. There were beautiful side altars with large statues depicting various saints. The votives were all burning brightly so many prayers had been offered sometime during the day. We lingered, lighting candles at Mary's altar and also at the altar of St. Joseph lifting up many intentions which we carried in our hearts. We left the church with a great sense of peace.

As we stepped outside we noticed a large crowd just a quarter of a block away. We wanted to see what was going on so we walked up the street filled with curiosity. Much to our surprise, we saw a large bus with the American Idol logo parked in the middle of the block and thousands of young people all lined up to audition for the upcoming show. What a sight that was compared to where we had just been! Many of the kids had guitars strapped to their backs ready to show off their talent to whomever would listen. We saw one young man singing his heart out as a TV camera recorded him. I could only imagine what his dreams were; to be discovered, to become a star, to make a lot of money and live an exciting life of travel and performing. This was one city with thousands having this same dream. How many more thousands would stand in line in other cities knowing that only one would be chosen as the American Idol? Many would believe they were the one. I stood for the longest time just watching them and silently praying for them. I also prayed for the young man locked in handcuffs by the police for some infraction I hadn't seen. I wished I could have told them about where I had just been. I wished I could have told them about the One who was waiting for them, where there were no lines. He is the One who bestowed on them their talents, who would open wide the doors of opportunity for them. But maybe they had already been to that beautiful church seeking God first. Maybe they were the ones who lit all of those votive candles. I can only hope.