A New Way To Praise

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I once went to a church service with one of my former students. As a cradle Catholic I grew up with a very formalized kind of religion that has often been critiqued and misunderstood so I kept an open mind as I experienced a very different way of connecting with God. After a reading from the Bible and a few words from the minister the people began praying aloud, sending their petitions to God all at one time in a confusing mix of sound. I was not quite sure how to react so I simply attempted to quiet my mind. That’s when I began to hear the profound beauty of their individual prayers and their deep faith that God would somehow comfort them and ease their pain. Before long the sounds of their very personal pleas brought tears to my eyes and a realization that each of us longs for hope and peace in different ways.

My mother was a confirmed Catholic. She believed in its teachings and traditions with all of her heart. Nonetheless she was quite open to other religions and often voiced her philosophy that her main hope was that each person would find a relationship with God in the manner that worked best. To that end she was just fine with the idea of people following their own hearts in deciding which kind of religion worked best for them. She believed that God comes to humans in many forms. She had great respect for the beliefs of others but was always troubled by those who thought that the very idea of a
God of any kind was a human myth. She prayed that each person might find the goodness and power that she felt from a closeness with a personal God.

I watched my mother’s faith and prayer life take her through challenges that might have defeated a lesser person. There was nothing easy about her life and yet she was known far and wide as an optimistic and happy person, someone who gave when she had so little of her own. I witnessed her love of God firsthand and I saw the incredible strength that it gave her. It convinced me that she was not just experiencing some human fairytale. What she felt was unexplainable in the scientific sense but nonetheless quite real.

Religions of all kinds have taken heat in the long course of history. My own Catholic Church is a target for derision these days because of scandals that shake the very foundations of belief. Other sects sometimes appear to be far less kind that they ought to be. The human discussion of all things spiritual is often fraught with anger and hypocrisy and yet at the heart of the matter is the idea that there is a being much bigger than our humanity upon whom we should depend. For some this is the stuff of legend and a source of ridicule, but for people like me and millions of others it is a deeply held conviction.

The most recent class that I have been taking at Rice University School of Continuing Education centers on the Stuart kings, the monarchs who took the throne of England after the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers. That particular moment in history was marked by sometimes violent religious struggles between the Church of England, more fundamentalist sects like the Puritans, and the Catholic Church. At that point in time the tendency was to attempt to eliminate any group of believers who did not concur with the monarchy and the national church. Strict laws prohibited true freedom of religion and in many ways served to influence later attempts to form fairer democracies, including the one that resulted right here in the United States of America. By law we are supposed to be as tolerant of all faiths as my mother always was.

I bring up all of this because I see so many instances of derision and sometimes even hatred being aimed at various religious groups and individual beliefs. We all too often presume to understand what is in the hearts of people who profess particular philosophies. We judge in places where we have no business to do so.

A perfect example of this is to be found in the person of Kanye West, a brilliant and talented musician and master of words who has by his own admission led a troubled life. Much like my mother he is challenged by the sometimes crippling mood swings of bipolar disorder. He has courageously admitted to having this terrible illness even knowing that it is so misunderstood. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to tolerance and compassion for the mentally ill, and so Kanye has been ridiculed and sometimes even spurned in his journey to find peace of mind. Along the way he has experienced a seemingly dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.

His enthusiasm for Christ has been mocked by those who think that perhaps he is just going through a manic phase. They call him crazy and joke about the strange twists and turns of his life. Others cynically suggest that he has just found a new way to make money. They see his foray into religion as nothing more than a scheme. Thus his new album Jesus Is King has been panned by many of his critics as little more than the mad ravings of a diseased mind.

I have listened to Kanye’s songs that praise the glory of Christ and I hear instead the work of a genius who has found a power that had previously been missing from his life. I applaud his courage in putting his entire career and reputation on the line with such a daring project. He will no doubt be questioned and misunderstood by many but the message in each track tells the story of someone who truly believes. He has taken his God given talents and used them to shout the good news that he has found. Jesus Is King is a gloriously creative gift, not the ravings of a madman and it is impossible and even wrong for any of us to question what truly lies in the heart of Kanye West. Instead we should celebrate the happiness and comfort that he appears to have found in God.

Liturgical music has included the compositions of giants. There have been Gregorian chants and litanies, symphonies and gospel pieces. Now the voice of Kanye West uses rap to tell of the glories of Jesus. It is both brilliant and lovely. His is a new way to praise. We should all celebrate that he has found a way to ease the tempest in his mind by sharing his genius with those of us who believe.

My Guru

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My life as a wife, mom, and teacher was always busy. Everyone in the household was constantly coming and going. Often it seemed as though the only times that we were all together was when we finally managed to get to sleep at night. I’d like to be able to say that I ran a tight and orderly ship but what we mostly had was a state of controlled chaos.

When the demands of our schedules and responsibilities became overwhelming I found myself wanting to go visit my grandfather who had a mysteriously calming influence on me. Being with him felt something like I imagine it would be to have an audience with the Dali Lama. Just seeing him sitting in his recliner puffing on his pipe brought my blood pressure down instantly and the wisdom he exuded with his every remark settled my anxieties more surely than the most powerful medication.

I never had to call my grandfather to set up an appointment. If I just showed up without warning he welcomed me as though he had been planning for my arrival. He was invariably clean shaven and neat in his khaki pants held up by suspenders. He wore the same style of his meticulously polished high top leather shoes that might have been the fashion in his youth before the dawn of the twentieth century. He had lost all but a ring of his hair that he kept neat and trimmed. He was a fastidious man of routine and habit whose calmness was always reliable. I knew what I would find before I even reached his home, and he never disappointed me.

His deep southern drawl cultivated in the foothills of Virginia had a soothing lilt and he gloried in telling the stories that delighted me no matter how many times I heard them. He might have mesmerized an audience in a one man show had he taken his talent on the road, but that is not who he was. Instead his magical effect on me lay in his constancy and the very story of his life that was rooted in hardship and survival without complaint. He was a person of impeccable character who had journeyed through life with grit and hard work. When he spoke he did not so much offer advice as model it through the thematic threads of his tales.

Grandpa was of another time and place who had somehow both transcended and embraced the marvels of the Industrial Revolution and the twenty first century. With his keen intellect and a set of hardcore values rooted in integrity he had somehow overcome one challenge after another. By the time I was making my pilgrimages to see him he owned little more than the clothes on his back and survived in a rented room with a meager pension that provided him with the most basic human needs. In spite of what some might call a very restricted lifestyle he found great joy in the simplicity of his existence which he always boasted was so much grander than what he had known as a boy.

I suppose that his optimism and faith in mankind was the thing that most inspired me. He taught me how to find satisfaction and joy in the most simple aspects of life and to eschew comparisons with those who appear to have more. He believed that it was futile to wish that things had been different in his story. He accepted the many hardships that he experienced as just part of the human experience. He reveled in knowing that he had overcome so much and was still standing.

When my grandfather died I was devastated. His one hundred eight years on this earth had somehow mislead me to believe that he would always be waiting to talk with me. I found myself regretting that I had not gone to see him more often or stayed just a bit longer instead of deferring to things that I had to do. I still hear his comforting voice and smell the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafting into the air. There is so much more that I want to know about him and so much that I would like to say to him.

We seem to be living in a time when society is rushing around faster than ever before. The trend is to tie ourselves and our children to unrelenting schedules. We are continually exposed to an infinite loop of complaining about how terrible things are. We attempt to assuage our stress with entertainments that are of little or no value. Some attempt to hide their pain with drugs and alcohol. It can feel overwhelming to observe the level of dissatisfaction. All of it makes me long for the calm and contentment of my grandfather, a man who dealt with the hand that was given him with grace and appreciation.

When all is said and done my grandfather taught me that we have more control over our lives than we may think. Both good and bad things will indeed happen but we have the ultimate control over what attitudes we choose to have. His philosophy was to find a grain of good even in the worst possible scenario. He was a strong and courageous man not just because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He embraced each moment just as it was, learning something about the world and himself as he went. I miss him greatly but he taught me how to survive and showed me how precious life can and should be. He was my guru.

Life

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October is respect life month. It seems intuitive to think that every human would respect the life of another and yet the headlines are filled with evidence that such is not always the case. In fact, we are all too unable to even agree on the definition of life. One simple definition based on scientific theories is that life is “ the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.”

The religious definition of life is that  our life as a human begins at the time of conception. Using the more scientific definition above it is easy to see that functions originating within the embryo begin the processes that define an organism as living rather than dead. The legal definition of life has become more and more convoluted, depending on the politics of the people from which it is encoded. There is much disagreement as to whether a clump of cells inside a woman’s womb are the essence of a person or little more than a gooey mass. The controversy is at the center of ethical discussions that are far from resolved.

For those who believe, as I do, that life begins at conception it is unarguable that purposely doing anything to harm or bring death to an embryo or fetus is murder. Such beliefs make abortion unacceptable for me and a vast segment of the population. When we hear of the millions of babies who have been killed in the name of women’s health or rights or whatever euphemisms one might use, it is an unbearable thought. If I witnessed someone being killed in the street I would immediately call for help to intervene. I would willingly serve as a witness at a trial for the perpetrator. I would be considered a hero for doing so, and yet if I protest the use of abortion for all but those cases in which a mother’s life is in danger, I am viewed by many as a kook or, even worse, someone who is heartless and unkind.

I actually feel somehow complicit in something that is very wrong because I tend to be more than reluctant to speak out against a practice that I think goes against the very nature of all that is decent. I worry more about what people may think of me if I reveal my thoughts or attempt to influence theirs than about the fact that I am by omission providing my acceptance of something that I feel is wrong.

Our society sends so many mixed messages about life. We are willing to convict someone who kills a pregnant woman and her baby for two murders, but we do not consider the work of an abortionist to be a crime except under the most extreme circumstances. We have no problem arresting someone for killing or cruelty to animals and yet some argue that abortion should be legal all the way up to the point of birth.

I not only cannot abide by such thinking, but I am feeling more and more guilty for not working to end such barbarous practices. I suppose that admitting such a thing will cause me to lose friends, readers, people that I love, but somehow I don’t feel I can continue to look the other way as though I do not see. If I am to show respect for human life then it must include the child who is growing inside a mother’s womb.

There is a brilliant writer named Kevin Williamson. He is a Texan who was adopted after his birth mother gave him up. He is a master of words and a joy to read. I do not always agree with him for he is far too conservative in some areas, but I always appreciate his total mastery of expression. Perhaps because of his own circumstances he is unapologetically pro life. He often considers out loud what his own fate would have been had his birth mom decided to simply end her pregnancy rather than carrying him full term and giving him to a family that wanted him. For the world it would have been the loss of great talent at the very least, and the extinction of a beautiful individual at most.

Mr. Williamson was hired by The Atlantic not long ago, an honor of which he was quite deserving. The magazine wanted to bring more political balance to its readers which is a worthy cause in these days of so much division. Sadly Mr. Williamson did not last a week at the job. Other writers and many of the readers protested his views on abortion and loudly exclaimed that his very presence was triggering their anxieties.

In particular Mr. Williamson had once been interviewed about abortion and during the conversation he admitted, like me, that he felt that abortion was murder. The interviewer then remarked incredulously that if it were indeed murder then all those involved including the woman would be tried for murder and given the appropriate punishments. He asked if that would be okay with Mr. Williamson who answered the ridiculously hypothetical question by saying that he supposed that would have to be so. From that point forward he became known as the man who thinks that women who have an abortion should be tried and punished for murder which was hardly the whole truth of the purposeful entrapment by the reporter.

We must respect life and we must also respect the deeply held feelings of those who have strong beliefs that abortion is wrong. We honor those whose faiths do not allow them to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We let girls of the Muslim faith wear head coverings to schools where head gear is against the rules. We constantly defer to religious beliefs but freak out whenever someone admits a strong feeling against abortion even though they base their beliefs on conscience. We argue with them. fire them and make them feel as though they are somehow mean. In truth nothing is further from the truth. Pro-life proponents are simply demonstrating the respect for life that they believe begins at the moment of conception and continues util the last breath. There is nothing egregious about that.

I Choose to Stay

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A few weeks after I was born my mother and father took me to All Saints Catholic Church to be baptized by the Reverend John Perusina. My Aunt Polly was my godmother and like my mom she was a very devout Catholic. In fact all of my cousins from Mama’s side of the family attended Catholic schools where we spent as many as twelve years learning about our church and participating in the sacraments. On Sundays we dressed in our best and attended mass at various parishes across the city of Houston.

The first Catholic community that I actually remember is St. Peter the Apostle where I attended first grade. I was quite young then, barely five years old. Much of that time is a fog because here was much havoc taking place in my home with the birth of my youngest brother, the constant illnesses of my middle brother and the death of my dear Uncle Bob. What I do remember is the great kindness that was extended to me by my teacher, Sister Camilla, and a friend, Virginia. I also enjoyed visits from my Aunt Polly who lived just down the street from the church. She checked in periodically to be sure that I was doing well. I suppose that none of the wonderful people who took the time to care for me that year ever knew how much their consideration meant to me, but in my heart I began to associate my Catholicism with love.

My family moved to another home just before I began second grade. We lived within walking distance of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. With only a brief interruption I would spend the rest of my growing up years in the hands of Carmelite priests and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I made many lifelong friends during those times and it was at Mt. Carmel that I made my first confession and my first communion. In the fourth grade I was confirmed in my faith. Those were glorious years in which I felt safe and loved and supported. My church family was like a great big extension of my own family, and when my father died all of the wonderful people from the parish watched over me and my mother and brothers. I was often frightened then, but the steadiness of the Church always came to my rescue.

I married my husband at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and the same  Father Perusina who had baptized me was the priest who performed the ceremony. For a long time I kept driving back to Mt. Carmel for mass on Sundays but it was just too far away from where I lived. I ended up going to Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Houston but it felt so unfamiliar and I did not know anyone there. I floated around from parish to parish as we made our moves, but once we purchased a home I found St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church where my own children would grow up as Catholics. I felt that same sense of family that I had enjoyed in my youth among the priests and parishioners there. My young adult life was spent teaching there on Sundays, managing the religious education program for a time, and making some of the very best friends that I have ever had.

When we moved from the house that had been our abode for over thirty years I found myself once again driving a rather long distance just to remain at St. Frances Cabrini but that became rather tedious and so I began searching for a closer parish in which to invest my faith. By happenstance I found Mary Queen Catholic Church.

The summer of 2017 had been wrought with pain for me and my husband. He had endured a stroke and we felt so much uncertainty about the future. Only a few short weeks later hurricane Harvey inundated our area. For days on end we sat in our home worrying that the waters might find their way inside while watching dreadful images of destruction in places that we knew quite well. When all was said and done we were fine but many of our family members and friends had lost most of their possessions and the security of their homes. It felt as though nobody was completely immune.

Two of the mothers of friends with whom I had gone to school at Mt. Carmel died during the time of our city’s recovery. Sadly Mt. Carmel had not been spared by Harvey. It’s roof had collapsed from the weight of the rain and it would be months before it was repaired. The families had to find alternative places to hold the funerals and it was Mary Queen Catholic Church that agreed to open their doors to provide them with a proper service. At the very same time the ladies of the quilting group at Mary Queen sent a prayer quilt to my husband with assurances that they would pray for his recovery and improved health.

We were so moved by the generosity of the people at Mary Queen that we decided that we had finally found our new home parish. We have not regretted our decision because we once again feel the kind of love and generosity that I experienced at St. Peter the Apostle, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and St. Frances Cabrini. The community of worshipers are the true leaders of a parish. It is in the people who fill the pews each Sunday that I find the word of God living and breathing around me. My new Mary Queen family quenches my spiritual thirst.

I am a Catholic. My parents brought me to the church as a child. I have stayed as an adult. There are many problems within the Catholic Church because even though it was founded by Christ, it is run on this earth by humans who by nature are sometimes frail and prone to mistakes. My faith bears the scars of many sins but it also represents the message of love that has sustained me during my most difficult times.

I have seen priests who failed in their stewardship and even felt uncomfortable around two of them that I purposely avoided. They were both later found credibly guilty of sexual abuse. It has saddened me to face the reality that the Catholic Church has for so long abrogated its duties to protect the flock, but I do not view the sinfulness of a few as a reason to leave. For most of my seventy years the priests and nuns and members of the Catholic Church have given me love, understanding, support, and a feeling of moving ever closer to God. I see no reason to leave or to turn my back on a religion that has been a source of sustenance and strength. I will stand by my church just as it has always stood by me.

Find me perfect people, perfect religions, perfect institution, perfect nations and I may be willing to admit that I should be disgusted with the Catholic Church. Since there are no such organizations that can claim to be without sin I choose instead to stay to help build my church on more solid ground. Jesus was all about love and forgiveness. That is how I view my own part in the Catholic Church. I will stay and I will love the family who joins me each Sunday to focus on what faith is really about. 

Strong Enough

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I awake early each morning and follow a routine that rarely varies. I prepare a light breakfast, brew some tea and wander to my sitting room, a place that was meant to be a study. I open the blinds so that I might see the first rays of the sun embracing the earth for one more day of possibilities, and settle in my easy chair with my laptop. I check several newsfeeds to see what has happened during my sleep and then I go to Facebook to find out how my friends and family are doing. It has become a way of communicating with one another that has kept me appraised of the welfare of even those who live very far away. Once I have an idea of the general condition of the world and those that I love I sit quietly in prayer and meditation, admittedly not as faithful and trusting as some of the more spiritual people that I know. Mostly it’s a conversation with God that varies depending on the circumstances of the moment.

On some days my entreaties to the Lord must sound like those of a whining child. I am often overwhelmed by the pain and suffering that I see. I want to be able to help those in need in more tangible ways and I feel a loss of control as though I am plummeting through the air in free fall, terrified by the uncertainty of what will eventually happen to me. I feel weak and vulnerable, two conditions that terrify me and that I mostly eschew at all cost. Sometimes though there is no escape and as I pray I am overcome with the calm that comes from the faith and trust that I am not alone. In those moments of clarity I realize that I have a parachute that will open at the very time that I need it. I realized that instead of fighting I need to relax and float through the air enjoying the view.

It’s difficult even in the best of circumstances for me to be so dependent on anyone or anything beyond myself, and yet I have seen days when my only choice was to plummet to earth in a state of panic or take the hands of God and the people around me to find the help that I so desperately needed. Like every human I have enjoyed blessings both great and small and endured pain and suffering that I thought might break me.

Each of us finds ourselves in situations that threaten to defeat us. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the role of an observant to someone’s sorrow. It is deeply painful to watch a loved one or acquaintance bearing a weight that seems almost unbearable, especially when they can’t seem to get a break from circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. Seeing them trying so hard to be strong and watching their efforts be compounded by disappointments and horrors is enough to make us question everything that we believe. It is in those rock bottom times that we have to surrender ourselves and suspend our need to be in charge, a most difficult state of affairs for control freaks like me.

I am all too aware these days of family members who are dealing with the burden of caring for multiple members who are either very ill or disabled. They are overcome by responsibilities that are demanding more of their energy than they ever dreamed they had. I am monitoring the progress of friends who are fighting like warriors to beat dreadful diseases. I am hearing the plaintiff cries of individuals who have lost children, a state that feels unfair and out of sync with the way things are supposed to be. I am observing young people who are confused and consumed with deep sadness. I know of others who have been betrayed by spouses or friends and now feel alone and hurt. I see the pain and suffering that attacks as serendipitously as a hurricane, leaving overwhelming destruction in its path.

A few morning ago I began my normal routine and saw two posts that struck me to the very center of my being. One was from a high school  acquaintance whose daughter died during the summer. She has been mostly stoic about her feelings but on this particular day she allowed those of us who know her to see the depth of her feelings and the hurt that is still so raw for her. She is a beautiful soul as was her daughter and the bond between them is as strong as ever and always will be. While her wounded heart is still far from mending I sense that it is on its way because she had the courage to admit how devastated she is. Being unafraid to admit our pain is so often the first step in healing.

Only a few posts down was another from a work colleague whose baby boy died in her arms eight years ago. She poignantly recounted the day on which her little angel left this earth only a short time after he was born. She spoke of her weariness at that time and how she was listening to Strong Enough on the radio as she traveled to the hospital not knowing that only a few hours later her son would be gone.

I wept eight years ago when I learned that my friend’s baby did not make it and I wept again when I read her story of the moment of his death eight years later. Then I listened to the song that had played on her journey to the unthinkable and pondered it’s message. I understood how the series of events that befell her were linked together in one glorious, mysterious way that brought her the peace and comfort that she needed. Like my other friend she will never understand why she had to face something so unthinkable, but she feels the presence of both God and her beloved child supporting her in ways that can’t be explained by logic but rather by the heart.

Sometimes words fail me and I find someone else’s to fill the void. So herewith are the lyrics for Strong Enough by Matthew West. Perhaps they may help someone much like they did my friend. I know that they spoke to me.

Strong Enough

You must

You must think I’m strong

To give me what I’m going through

Well, forgive me

Forgive me if I’m wrong

But this looks like more than I can do

On my own

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

For the both of us

Yeah

Well, maybe

Maybe that’s the point

To reach the point of giving up

‘Cause when I’m finally

Finally at rock bottom

Well, that’s when I start looking up

And reaching out

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

‘Cause I’m broken

Down to nothing

But I’m still holding on to the one thing

You are God and

You are strong when

I am weak

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

I don’t have to be strong enough

Strong enough

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Oh, yeah

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Strong enough

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Matthew West

Strong Enough lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc