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.

Where You There?

I hate being sick. But who doesn’t, right? Perhaps a saint, a very holy person, would be one who would embrace the suffering with joy. There would be no complaining, no muttering, only a silent offering of their pain to the Lord. I used to read about those saints whose only desire was for martyrdom. They would be rejoicing as their captors led them to the guillotine to chop off their heads. A saint I am not, not even close!
 

 

This past week I had some sort of hellish infection that kept me in bed for nearly a solid week. To say I am a terrible patient is an understatement. I moan, I cry, and make some sort of sound with every breath I take. To give myself a little bit of slack, I must mention that I had fever and chills for days, my glands were painfully swollen, my throat was on fire and I had a headache that would not relent.  Did I mention I had a horrible headache? My body does not tolerate narcotic pain meds and so I could only rely on ibuprophen and the mercy of God. Both were slow to respond.
 

 

All my Catholic life, I had been taught to “offer it up.” If you’re Catholic, you know what I mean. If you’re not, it simply means that all suffering has redemptive purposes, if not for yourself, then for someone else who needs the graces. Somehow it really does feel comforting to know that whatever you’re enduring is not in vain. The other phrase I hear is to “unite your suffering to the suffering of Christ”.  I honestly did not understand how to do this. As I lay in bed feeling very ill and discouraged that I was not getting better, I asked the Holy Spirit to show me.
 

 

Before I knew it, my thoughts transported me to a sort of field outside Jerusalem at the base of the hill of Calvary. In a way I felt like I was in a movie but there I was, modern day Elyse, in a large crowd of yelling and jeering people. It was startling but I allowed my thoughts to continue to lead me.  We were all there waiting for Jesus to emerge from the narrow street into this more open area. I felt such fear because I knew no one and most of the crowd was an angry mob. There was a terrible sense of dread. And then He appeared. I was far away and could barely see him carrying the cross. He moved slowly and deliberately. The noise was deafening and I was trying to move closer but I was being crushed. Finally, when He was directly across from me, I screamed His Name as loud as I could. To my utter amazement, He stopped, turned and looked right at me. At that point, time stood still and everything was silent.  It seemed as if that gaze lasted a lifetime but it was only a few seconds.  In that short time I sensed that He knew that I loved Him. And I knew that He loved me so deeply that no words could ever express it. Only His action of willingly going to the cross for my sins would let me know the depth of this love. The soldier then prodded Him and He bowed His head and once again moved ever so slowly.  
 

 

I will never forget that look. Even though my illness is nearly gone, that image is now engrained in my head for all eternity. Jesus noticed me. In all the noise he heard me call His Name. He was on His way to die a most brutal death but Jesus looked at me and acknowledged my presence. I wept over my sinfulness and my many weaknesses but somehow I felt consoled in the midst of my own pain.
 

 

The interior vision went on for a seemingly long time. It felt so real. Could it have been the fever? Or did the Holy Spirit come to help me to understand what it means to share in Christ’s suffering? St. Ignatius encourages us to enter into the Holy Scriptures and to see ourselves within the Word of God. And that is exactly what happened. And now, when I hear the words of the hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I feel that I can say, Yes. Yes, I was there.”

How Are You?

How are you?  No, really, how are you?  Have you been cranky, out of sorts, easily frustrated, quick to raise your voice?  Are you impatient?  Depressed? Can you think clearly? Are people getting on your nerves? Do you say in your best Marlena Dietrich voice, “I want to be alone?”  Before you make a call to your nearest therapist, ask yourself the following question.  Are you getting enough rest?  I have become increasingly aware that sleep is a very underestimated thing of value in our world today and I believe that’s the cause of many maladies; physical, mental and even spiritual. Is anyone sleeping or even resting anymore?

 

Back in my parents’ day, life seemed simpler.  Dad went to work in the morning and came home in time for dinner with the family.  We ate together and he relaxed for a while out in his garden watering the roses and then went to bed well before 10:00pm.  Mom cleaned and cooked and sewed but she, too, made sure she went to bed at a decent hour to get ready for the next day.  There were no hand held devices to continually check and no computers.  There was only TV and radio and their programming completely ended at 11:00pm.  Only doctors were on call 24/7. What a difference between then and now!

 

We have advanced so much technically and the world has become so much smaller. That’s a good thing, I assume.  But what are we sacrificing in order to be “on” and available all the time?  There are young families with children who have loads of homework, soccer practice, cheerleading, piano lessons and science projects.  Some of us have elderly parents or relatives who are less than able to care for themselves and need our time and TLC. We have our jobs, which demand our attention even away from the office.  Our inboxes never seem to be empty and text messages come at all hours of the day and night.  There are a million tv channels from which to choose with endless news and sports programming.  We haven’t even covered general housekeeping duties, grocery shopping and yard work.  And have we left any time for prayer? 

 

We’re exhausted.  Our society is sick and tired. And we wonder why.  My friends, I think we need to put sleep on our calendars.  I know we can’t turn off a crying baby but can we turn off the tv, the cell phone and our iPads, even for a few hours a day? Our brains, our bodies and our souls need a break from this frenetic lifestyle.  Maybe we can’t get 8 hours of sleep a night but we can take important mental health moments during our busy days.  Will we allow ourselves even 15 minutes of healing silence each day? 

 

Because I have personally experienced many of those “attitudes” described in the first paragraph, I have resolved to spend one day a month, or even just a couple of hours of that day to rest, reflect and recharge.  I need it and God knows, the people around me know I need it.  I want to take time to just be.  I long to smell the flowers, to praise God for the brilliant sun and the glorious sky.  I want to listen to the rain during a storm and let it soothe my spirit.  Honestly, I just want to take a nap sometimes. 

 

What kind of rest brings you peace and healing? And are you taking the time for it?  

The Passage of Time

Many years ago, when I was an elementary student at St. Monica’s in Cincinnati, I did quite a bit of daydreaming, especially during math class.  During those periods I would stare at the big circular clock that would tick ever so slowly. I was convinced something was wrong with that clock because it never seemed to move.  The minutes passed by so painfully slow.  Staring out the massive windows in our classroom, I wished I could be anywhere else but at my little wooden desk.  I would dream that a river would flow near the school and I could jump in and let the cool waters carry me home. Then Sister’s voice coming near me would startle me back to reality.  I would glance at the broken clock and see that the big hand had creaked only two more notches. Do you remember similar times as a child when the school day was interminably long, when you thought summer vacation would never come, when waiting for Christmas was sheer agony?  

 

It seems that when we’re children time is something we always wanted to pass.  We were always looking forward to something better.  We wanted to be older, to wear stockings and lipstick before our time, to be old enough to drive, to envision ourselves as adults and be the boss of somebody.  But as we grew older, time became elusive, its passing something that we could not control.  Before we knew it, all the things we longed for had come and gone and didn’t we just blink our eyes? Sometimes I feel like I am in a Rip Van Winkle story and I have been asleep for twenty years. What happened?  The babies that I lovingly rocked and read to now have children of their own.  Their cries for homework help and playground injuries have faded and I can’t help but wonder if I truly relished every single day I had with them. 

 

There aren’t a lot of perks that come with, shall I say, maturity.  The bones make strange noises, the joints ache, doctor visits become more frequent, wrinkles deepen and checking for root growth is a daily ritual.  However, I have to say that with age comes a marvelous gift and consolation.  It’s the gift of wisdom.  I have finally figured out the beauty and the wonder of the present moment.  No longer will I take time for granted.  Each morning God gives me a brand new day to be the best I can be no matter what I may encounter.

 

While my life is still a very busy one filled with lots of daily activities, I now greet each day with a prayer of thanksgiving.  It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold outside, or raining or snowing or foggy.  This day is precious.  Even if I have a splitting headache or I'm stuck in a horrific traffic jam, I am where I am supposed to be.  Each moment is a gift in and of itself.  If there’s a particular cross I am carrying, I know that God will give me the grace and the strength to endure it.  No more wishing this or that time away.  No more saying, “I can’t wait for this job to be over” or “If only these next few weeks would just fly by so I can go on vacation”.  

 

My friend, time IS flying by. Let’s not continually check the calendar or stare at that clock waiting for something else.  If you fall into bed at night completely spent and the day seemed like a blur, think of just one wonderful thing that happened. Recall it, burn it into your memory so that you didn't miss the joy of that day.  It's all about the present moment and making the best of it.  Your life is a gift from God.  Thank Him for it and embrace it.

The Market

ecently, a trip to my local farmer’s market was desperately needed. My refrigerator held little more than a cupful of milk and some questionable leftovers. I was longing for an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, crusty French bread and some good inexpensive bottles of wine. Grabbing my “green” grocery bags and a warm jacket (it’s freezing in there!) I entered the huge space slowly pushing my cart as to take in the entire experience. And it is definitely an experience you want to savor. 

It was unusual for me to go on a Saturday because the place is jammed, and this Saturday was no exception. Even the wide aisles were too crowded to maneuver a cart, so I parked it nearby and made my way, easing into the myriads of people handpicking green beans one by one to take my turn. It’s an art to do so without offending anyone or getting in someone’s way. Remarking about how fresh things looked began a conversation and I was then welcomed into the fray. Most of the customers were friendly enough and they, too, were taking their time, enjoying the nearly spiritual experience of choosing some of the bounty God had given us. The bright colors of peppers, tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, blueberries and hundreds of other items was a lovely feast for the eyes. I marveled at the strangely shaped vegetables and noticed people of every race and culture carefully selecting foods that I had never seen before and would have no idea how to prepare. But their faces were bright as they must have been thinking about their native homes and the food they had shared with their families. I stuck with my normal fare but longed to know and taste so many different things.

My favorite section is the bread area. Several long aisles are needed to accommodate every kind of bread you could imagine. It’s all made with organic ingredients and before I knew it I had loaded up on dinner rolls, Italian bread, rye bread, whole wheat bread and raspberry croissants. I wondered if I needed all of that but what in the world would I put back on the shelf? Certainly not the croissants and John loves rye bread. I could always freeze it, I thought.

My hour long trip was coming to an end. It would be a shame to hurry this kind of errand. But the best part was yet to come. There must have been at least 25 cashiers ready to check people out and they were all busy. I tried to eye the shortest line and made my way to a young man. You must know that the cashiers, and actually all the workers there, are not Americans. They wear name tags that also have their native language on them. Very rarely do I see “English” although most of the workers can speak a few words. 

The man greeted me with a warm smile and then I noticed something unusual. Although the market was crazy busy and the lines to check out were long, he moved in a deliberate manner, taking extra time to ring up my order. As he bagged my delicious produce he did so with great care. I watched as he practically cradled each piece of fruit, how he gently picked up the bread and carefully placed it in my bag. His movements were loving and caring. Could it be that perhaps food was scarce where he came from and he realized that everything he handled was a gift from God, something to be valued and respected? There were no words exchanged between us except my heartfelt “Thank you” as I left. But all the way home I thought about him. I thought about how I had felt a sense of healing from this man. What was it about him? I know it sounds crazy but those few moments spent with this stranger deeply touched me. And I realized it was his beautiful, gentle nature that struck me to my core. 

Gentleness. What an unusual gift that is, especially in these days! How often do we encounter it, in our homes, in our workplace, in our relationships? I have meditated on that encounter at the market many times. If in those few moments I experienced a sense of peace and healing with this gentle man, do I not feel a responsibility to become more like him so that others may also be healed though an encounter with me? Do I handle all the gifts that God has given me with the spirit of gentleness? It may sound strange but am I able to touch fruit and bread with a sense of wonder? More importantly, do I touch others with that same love and care and gentleness?