Looks like 6 more weeks of winter....bring it on.
I just watched Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day to commemorate the occasion. What a classic! I actually had never seen it until a buddy of mine found that out this fall and berated me! Hahaha. He forced me to watch it. I’m glad he did.
OK. Sorry about the postponements. Better late than never I guess.
This morning I made an interesting excursion to one of the Pontifical Basilicas in Rome---Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (“Holy Cross in Jerusalem”).
But first a background story.
Each year at seminary, we kick it off with a week long silent retreat. What does that mean? For a whole week, your class leaves seminary and stays at a retreat center somewhere outside of Rome. After the first gathering, everybody stops talking for the upcoming week. We celebrate Mass together, have a couple conferences each day, and pray together two or three times a day. Other than that, the time is yours.
You can just sit, read, sleep (always a favorite!), take a walk, pray, wander, or a number of other silent activities. Also, two or three priests come along to direct the retreat. One is the “retreat master” meaning that he organizes the general structure, gives the talks each day, and usually preaches at Mass. However, all the priests are available all day for “spiritual direction.” So what is that? Basically it is chatting with one of the priests about whatever you want...whatever is troubling you...whatever is bringing you joy....namely, Whatever. Together you look for how God is present in the midst of it, how God is loving you, how God is calling you to love Him and His people, what is holding you back, what is turning you in on yourself, what inspires you, what saddens you, and the list goes on.
It really is a privileged time. I look forward to this time every year now. I know that if I would not have joined seminary, I likely would never have taken the time to have such an experience. These times are so precious. It is a time I think we all long for in some way...even though we might not be conscious of it---a time to stop...and let all the movements of our lives catch up with us....for our heads to stop spinning long enough for us to see ourselves....see the world a bit more clearly. It can be scary to do that...especially if you haven’t done it in a long time. I know for me, I used to be afraid of what I might see once I slowed down...once everything wasn’t just passing me by like cars on a freeway. Silence really is the best mirror we can look in. There is nothing else to see in the silence--just us..and that voice...always in the back of our heads.....normally drowned out by the ambient noise of our daily life.
Thank God, I have come to be comfortable with silence...even long for it. Becoming comfortable with silence, was really what opened the world of prayer for me. Not to be dramatic, but its the best thing that has ever happened to me.
So, this year our class went to a little town in the hills just outside of Rome called Castel Gondolfo. It was beautiful to say the least. The retreat center’s property bellied up to a cliff looking out over all of Rome. Each night, many of us would watch the sun set over Rome casting about fifteen different colors over that ancient city we currently call our home.
The first day of the retreat, I was sitting in the chapel and noticed that the pew in front of me had a couple books resting inside. Mindlessly, I picked one up and noticed it was some kind of spiritual reading written in Italian. As I thumbed through the pages, I came across a piece of paper. I was struck by the little girl’s portrait. So beautiful. So simple. So innocent. Her eyes seemed to offer such depth. I found myself surprised that I was so captivated. I flipped it over and this is what I saw:
This is what Catholics call a “holy card.” There are a lot of different kinds of these, most of which bear sacred images and prayers that can aid one in prayer.....even remind one to pray. Some cards, like this one, are made when someone who has died is expected to be a saint.
What does that mean? It means that people believe that this person lived a life very close to God. That this person walked closely with Jesus. That this person is an example that may inspire others to live their lives more fully like Christ...more fully for others...for peace...for love...for joy....for fulfillment. And because of all this, people believe that this person is in heaven, living life in perfect union with the Author of Love...looking down on us...desiring nothing more than our company in their bliss.
As Catholics, we believe our relationships with people do not end at death. Rather, we can still talk to them...i.e. “pray” to them...just as vividly...if not more intimately as when they walked this earth. We can ask them for prayers. We can tell them our problems. We can share with them our joys. We can even pray for them.
And we do. We pray for all the dead...that they find peace and rest and the fullness of love in heaven. We believe our souls can talk to their souls, just as we can talk to Jesus in our hearts (a man who lived on earth and now awaits us in heaven).
Have you ever asked someone to pray for you? What exactly do you believe this does? Is God not already aware of everything going on? Does he not know our hearts and thoughts already? Isn’t he even supposed to know the number of hairs on our head?
So what is our prayer...or that of another for us? If they pray hard enough, is God going to change his mind? Are you going to rack up some “spiritual brownie points?” What kind of power do others have in prayer? And how does it effect anything?
Surely God cannot be lacking in anything....no knowledge...no love....no understanding...no mercy...no justice. So where is the lack? Could it be in us? Could it be that we lack something? That we haven’t figured it all out yet? If so then....prayer becomes about us acknowledging our “lacks”.....whatever they may be...and inviting God (for He is Love, and Love does not force itself upon another) to fill them...heal them...and make us WHOLE (holy).
And, here is the kicker, we are NOT ALONE in this. We don’t have to figure this all out ALONE. In fact, we CAN’T do it alone. We can’t even come to exist alone---it takes at least the help of two others! We are not alone. Our lives don’t make sense in isolation. We need God and and we need each other. For example, how can I understand myself as an “I” except in reference to another?---a “You,” a “He”, a “She”, a “They.” Language itself is something corporate...something communal. We could never learn a language...we would have no need for it....if it was only us. We are all connected. Mysterious as it may be. That is our reality---we are members of a body bigger than we can imagine.
So, some of those other members of this body, who can best help us figure out our own “I”s are the Saints---those dwelling in the fullness of God’s presence. They see Him face to face. There is nothing hidden from their eyes any longer. Who better could relate to us what Goodness, Love, Truth, and Beauty is like than those who are staring it right in the face. And so we cry out, even now to the Saints, asking them to help make us whole as they are whole with God. Of course, God mediates all of this...just as he mediates our very existence...right here and now...but we are still us...we each still have our radically unique “I”...and thus have infinitely important roles to play.
Sooooooo....back to that holy card. When Catholics suspect one of their family has lived a life very close to Jesus, they begin to talk to them asking for their prayers. Too they ask for a sign that they are, indeed, resting with God in heaven. The faithful ask for a miracle! Some visible sign of God’s great love and grace. Many times the faithful will ask for the healing of a loved one...or their own personal healing.
There is a whole Congregation in Rome that works around the clock to investigate such processes around the world. When a group of faithful believe that a saint is in their midst, they will contact Rome and begin a long process towards “canonization”---becoming a “saint.” Now the Church does not make a saint. In other words, a person doesn’t float on into heaven right when the Church officially proclaims them to be a “saint.” Rather, canonization is just the Church stating the obvious...stating the reality at hand...that one of its faithful has gone on to be FULLY with God the Father.
First things first, someone must become the “postulator” or “leader” for the “cause” of a saint. Their job is to research the life of this saint thoroughly, to encourage others to pray to this saint, and to present all of their findings to the Vatican. They spend hours talking to those who knew the saint, reading through any of their writings, reflecting upon their influence on others, and above all praying to this holy person...chatting...getting to know them better. Once the postulator has submitted much evidence, the Vatican, after reviewing it all, can “accept” the case. Next comes the miracles!
The Vatican collaborates with medical, scientific, and forensic experts all around the world to investigate these “miracle claims.” Only when a healing occurs that simply CANNOT be explained in any other way...a miracle is approved. Three such approved miracles and canonization becomes possible. When the case is accepted by the Vatican the person is called a “Servant of God.” After one miracle is approved they become known as “Venerable.” After two miracles have been approved, they bump (from our perspective) to “Blessed.” And finally after the third miracle and a Solemn Mass of Canonization (like the one I served this Oct. for St. Damien), they become a “SAINT.”
So, again, back to the card. Meet Antonietta Meo...nickname “Nennolina.” Right now she is “Venerable.” Thus, one miracle has been approved for her already. When I came across her card, I had never even heard of her.
She was born in Rome on December 15, 1930 and died in Rome only seven years later--July 3, 1937. She was born with a rare disease that caused her great suffering during her seven years on earth. However, she never complained. Rather, she consciously “offered it all up” just like Jesus...for the sake of others. She loved so deeply. She has a special love for the Eucharist. There is a letter written the night before her First Communion in which she writes “Dear Jesus...” hardly able to wait....more anxious than a kid at Christmas.
Nennolina on that night
Her faith is so deep but yet so simple. It is an amazing grace to behold. Living only seven years she saw reality in a way some people never are able. The wind truly does blow where it wills....
Here are a couple quotes preserved from letters she wrote:
“Dear Jesus, I love you so much, dear Jesus, I want to abandon myself into your hands...help me with your grace, help me, because without your grace I can do nothing.”
She told her mother: "When I suffer, I immediately think of Jesus so I don't suffer anymore! It's simple not to suffer: don't think of your pain, but think of Jesus', because He suffered so much for us that you won't feel anything yourself."
"You know, mum? I offered my leg to Jesus for the conversion of the poor sinners and so as to bless all the soldiers in Africa."
To her father: "Pain is like fabric, the stronger it is, the more it's worth."
To her mother: "When you feel pain, you have to keep quiet and offer it to Jesus for a sinner. Jesus suffered so much for us, but He hadn't committed any sin: He was God. How could we complain, we who are sinners and always offend Him?"
Is your mind blown yet???!!!????
Mine was that day when I found Nennolina’s card. Ever since, I have been “getting to know her.” I feel very at peace when I talk to her. I believe she has so much to offer the world.
One day this past fall, I was in the chapel and noticed that another seminarian had a copy of the same card sitting on his lap. A couple days later, I asked him how he got it. He told me that a priest in his diocese (Lansing, MI) was involved in her process for canonization (also called “beatification”). Wow. I couldn’t believe it. He told me that there is a miracle in Michigan being investigated right now attached to Nennolina! Also, he told me that she was buried in a side chapel of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. I knew then I had to go and visit.
Later that evening I met a very loving, elderly Roman lady named Antonietta....I’m just sayin....
Since I finished an exam yesterday and don’t have one until Friday, I took the morning off and visited Santa Croce. Really a very beautiful, sacred, prayerful place. After months of praying to Antonietta, it was a real gift to kneel at her tomb and chat some more. I prayed for many things...in a special way all for you...whoever made read this. Praying there, I felt I should write about her...about saints...and about Jesus today.
After spending time at her tomb, I moved to another chapel housing some relics from Christ’s life and passion: fragments of the cave in Bethlehem, St. Thomas’ finger (that he place in the Risen Christ’s wounds), the Title nailed above Jesus on the cross, a piece of the True Cross, two thorns from Jesus’ crown, and one of the nails used to fix him to the cross.
Again, is your mind blown?
Too, I spent some time there in prayer. Powerful place to pray if you ever get the chance. I could not help but connect that time in prayer....with the time I had just spent at Nennolina’s tomb. Both of them had suffered so much...out of LOVE...Love for US...Love for God. This connection was only affirmed as I explored a website dedicated to Nennolina. One of the articles reads, “If anyone asked her how she felt, she answered she was fine. She didn't want anyone to pray for her recovery, but to pray to do God's will. ‘I want to stay with Him on the cross because I love Him.’ ”
Whether you are Catholic, Protestant, atheist, or anything in between....I invite you to get to know Nennolina. Her logic is not that of this world alone. It begs each of us to stop...reflect...and face the silence...and allow the reality of her life to speak to us. Whatever you may be suffering right now...whatever you may be worrying about...stressing about....afraid of....confused by.....talk to her about it. She will help you. She will hold your hand and walk you to her best friend--a carpenter from Nazareth. Together they know everything you are dealing with....they have everything you need.
Confronted by a life such as Nennolina’s, I have no words that are adequate. So to close, I turn to those of another....
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them, and when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.
Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, "Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it. (Luke 18:15-17) also cf. (Matt 18:2-4)
THIS WEEK’S LINKS:
Nennolina: This site is dedicated to her. I has a good article or two and some basic information.
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme: Here is the Basicila’s main website. It has a beautiful intro. movie which is worth the wait.
Wikipedia: Also has some great stuff. Especially the “Life and Death” section. Too, I just learned that the first miracle occurred in Indiana--a lady was miraculously cured of Hepatitus C after praying to Nennolina.
SAINTS: This will take you back to my November 1, 2009 post. There I reflected again much about the saints....as it was “All Saints Day.”
THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL:
While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening
to the word of God,
he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.
He saw two boats there alongside the lake;
the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.
Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him
and all those with him,
and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
who were partners of Simon.
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.
Let's take time this week and face the silence.
Let's pray for one another...so we may be made more and more WHOLE....HOLY.
If you feel comfortable, let's pray this prayer for each other throughout this week (from the holy card I have):
O God, Father of the humble,
we thank you
because in Antonietta Meo
you have us a living image
of your Love and your Wisdom,
revealed to the meek.
You, who gave her the Grace
to be joined to the Cross
of the Lord Jesus
and to suffer with fortitude and joy,
make her glorious also
at this time on earth,
that she may be for all
a shining example
of faithfulness to the Gospel,
grant us her same simple love
for the Eucharist and for the Church;
come to us in our poverty
and, by her intercession,
according to your Holy Will,
give us the grace
which, with trust, we ask to You.
All Glory be....