A Virgin’s Fear

Antonello de Messina, Vierge de l'Annonciation, 1475. Public domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Antonello de Messina, Vierge de l’Annonciation, 1475. Public domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The angel appeared and said “Do not be afraid…”

Some heavenly being popped up in front of me, I’d need calming down too!

These words were spoken to Zechariah in Luke 1:13; and a few months later to Mary, Luke 1:30. Let’s never mind about St. John the Baptist’s father.  Consider only Mary for a moment.

Mary was well educated in the foundations of her religion. There is no doubt that she observed the traditions of daily prayers. One day while offering these prayers, a being, like no other, enters her private chambers.

Now, you and I have been taught that this was a glorious moment, an angelic event of great joy—and presumed peace-filled. Well, maybe later since the line in Luke 1:29 indicates otherwise—“for she was greatly troubled”—and the angel Gabriel had to settle her down before he could deliver the next shock to this little human girl!

I don’t imagine Gabriel to be a tiny Tinkerbell kind of being. Even an entity Disney-small entering into my oratory would cause me to jump back a bit. A being as prominant as Gabriel would fill the whole room suddenly and completely. Is it any wonder Mary was greatly troubled and filled with fear?

Still, trying to recover from being startled—her heart racing and adrenaline flowing—the message is spoken that she will conceive in her womb a child, God’s own son.

The God she knew was unimaginably, and quite terrifyingly, powerful. He was a God that comes in storms, fires, and floods. If He comes to her what of her fragile humanness, of her delicate womb?

The Virgin Mary may also have considered God’s gentle ways, for he created the rosemary plant with its scent that filled a home. He gave to them sweet honey wondrously made by tiny bees.

We are not told what she thought, other than she was initially startled and afraid.

She had but one question for this messenger from heaven…How? Still some fear. If God took on a body, it would surely be greater than a mortal’s. Would he come to her through the body of her Joseph? If not through her betrothed, than what of the scandal?

Gabriel assures her that in the most unobtrusive element on the earth, a mist of a shadow, God would envelope her.

We are not told if she had time to pray, to brace herself, to ask for mercy.

Here her faith stilled her heart. The answer was not a helpless resignation from this very young woman, she had a choice. She chose to let go of her fear. She chose to surrender her body to an unimaginable event—full union with God.

Gabriel received a willing yes, and then departed, and Mary was left in wonderment.

And the privacy of the conception of a child remains—as it should—between the parents.

The Virgin Mary’s moment of fear turned into trust and the world’s salvation began. Ten months later, the world in wonder rejoiced.

May the peace of Christ be with you dear reader, now and throughout the new year. My Christmas gift to you, if you would like, is a year of prayer…please leave your request in the comments.


Do Not Snark the Poor

Image from public domain at PD4PIC.com

Image from public domain at PD4PIC.com

Christmas shopping and the Red Kettles bell ringers of the Salvation Army are calling us with a tinny jangle to help the poor. I nod my head and smile, walking by, not depositing even a penny. I have already given—to another group, at church or the office—earlier. I am annoyed by the once-a-year, in-your-face, give-to-ME-or-look-selfish-in-the-eyes-of-the-anonymous-crowd suppliants. The annoyance exists for more than whom they claim needs our help.

All year the obvious poor are easy to spot—financially destitute, mentally impaired, in need of food, shelter, clothing, or medical care. There are the poor souls in purgatory hungering for God with no one but us to ease their suffering. It is easing the discomfort of the poor that we are called to do as Christians, in whatever way appropriate to the station of our life.

Then there is a whole other level of poor that begs for Christ. It is often composed of those who live above physical poverty with few unmet earthly needs. They are the antithesis of the poor in spirit mentioned in the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3). Their spirits are often deeply attached to this world and find security in it, not realizing their need for God’s grace. The affluent that help build six-billion dollar sports arenas and place but $100 in a monthly offertory—if they attend church at all.

There are the poor in spirit who often lack understanding the teachings of Jesus and urgings of the Holy Spirit: the emotionally unstable but not fully deranged, the broken that are bullies, predacious sexual offenders.

These other levels of the poor are the ones who demand the greatest of us—of me—as Christians. To see opulence at its worst, bullies at their best, to hear sexual innuendos feigned as innocent of intent—blamed to my depravity—pushes me to my limit of being kind, compassionate, and loving. I just want to throttle them! It is in the effort to understand that they possess brokenness—a mental and spiritual instability nearly hidden in the normalcy of a broken society—which reins in my anger.

It is often easier for me to be compassionate towards the poorest needing a bath, a toothbrush, and clean clothes than it is to tolerate the presence of a person of entitlement, and delusional about their even being so!

Compassion is never meant to be at arms length. How desperately I fail at this when confronted by the fear-filled arrogant. I pity them, and another failing, this! For if I pity someone, I have adopted a stance of being superior to them, to be sorry that they are not like me—egad, but the charitable slope is slippery.

The poor, we are told will always be with us, for without them who would there be to call forth Christ?

I need to go read the Psalms and learn a deeper way to pray for the pompous few. And, while at it, ask the Lord to judge me less harshly for my sins of self-importance.

Litany of Humility

Written by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X.

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.


That others may be loved more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may, increase

and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I,

provided that I may become as holy as I should,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.


Chestnuts at Christmas, A Garden Catechism


Edible Sweet chestnuts or European chestnuts, Castanea sativa. Image by Clarita, morguefile.com

Those lovely, smooth, shiny-brown chestnuts we enjoy during the Christmas season are pretty rugged looking at the start.

The American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, is native to eastern North America, and nearly died out in the early 1900s from an imported blight.

Its Latin name castanea is derived from the city Castanis in Asia Minor where the sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, has been cultivated for centuries. It was introduced throughout Europe during Roman times and grown in many monastery gardens. It’s not unusual to find trees over 1000 years old in Great Britain.

Sweet chestnut or European chestnut, Castanea sativa. Image by Magnus Manske, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Castanea_sativa_%27Sweet_Chestnut%27_(Sagaceae)_nut.JPG)

Sweet chestnut or European chestnut, Castanea sativa. Image by Magnus Manske, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Castanea_sativa_%27Sweet_Chestnut%27_(Sagaceae)_nut.JPG)

The sweet chestnut tree produces large round thorny burrs that encase a single nut. It is this hull configuration, and regrowth habit, that earned it the moniker, God’s Fruit.

The thorny hull evokes the torment of Jesus. Also associated with its spiny hull are the concepts of chastity and purity, a fruit protected. The Latin name castanea contains the root word castus which means chaste and pure. And it is here that it alludes to the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception—Mary though surrounded by original sin is immune to it.

The chestnut tree in paintings points to the Resurrection. Trees that are grown for their wood can be cut nearly to the ground every few years. The practice, called coppicing, results in vigorous regrowth of numerous long straight shoots.

Carlo Crivelli, The Madonna of the Little Candle, 1470 (image public domain).The brocade pattern on the cloth beneath Mary’s feet are chestnut leaves.

Carlo Crivelli, The Madonna of the Little Candle, 1470. The brocade pattern of the cloth beneath Mary's feet are chestnut leaves.

El Greco, right panel, Modena Triptych, 1568 (image public domain). Image found at Byzantine Historical Museum, http://bit.ly/1whqI8r. The baptism of Jesus under chestnut tree.

El Greco Baptism Jesus

Filippino Lippi, The Adoration of the Child, 1480 (image public domain). The two chestnut trees in the background are thought to represent the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection.

Madonna in ADoration Filippino

George Jacobus Johannes Van Os, Grapes Strawberries Chestnuts an Apple and Spring Flowers, c.1838 (Image found at APA, http://bit.ly/1wgO6CZ).


Tuesday’s Prayer for Sisters and Nuns

On the feast day of St. Juan Diego this prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, found on EWTN, has been slightly tweaked as an intercession for our women religious.

Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Mystical Rose,
make intercession for holy Church,
protect the sovereign Pontiff,
help all our Sisters and Nuns who invoke you in their necessities,
and since you are the ever Virgin Mary
and Mother of the true God,
obtain for them from your most holy Son
the grace of keeping our faith,
of sweet hope in the midst of the bitterness of life,
of burning charity, and the precious gift
of final perseverance. Amen.


Silver Tree of Christmases Past

Harold and Margaret 1922A story, one of the few, of family. It was written a while ago–my week has been hectic–and I pray you will enjoy it again.

My grandparents were born in 1896 and 1901. Their families immigrated to Detroit when they were teenagers. She had planned to become a nun, and he had graduated from Michigan State College (now MSU) in dairy science. Not a very avant-garde image. But it was the roaring twenties when they met, and things were about to become radical.

He was a Protestant from Ireland and she Italian and loyal to The Pope. In that decade mixed marriages of this type were scandalous! Unheard of! Doomed. I remember my grandmother laughing as she told the story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time and overhearing her say “Aye Harold, she ‘tis a lovely girl, but did ja have ta go ‘n marry a Catholic!?”

They bought a shanty of a house located off Woodward Avenue near 8 Mile Road outside Detroit. The four room, wooden shingled house sat at the back of the lot. It was the only house they ever owned. Through the Great Depression they found creative ways to expand and remodel: salvaging wood from rail-road crates, removing cabinets and doors from condemned houses, scavenging a local business for discarded ceramic tiles, digging a basement by hand.

My grandmother loved sunlight, lots of sunlight. And my grandfather loved pleasing his wife. So a key feature added in the 1950s was a 5′ x 8′ picture window. I imagined that to the neighbors we all appeared like fish in a bowl.

This same picture window from Thanksgiving until the Epiphany displayed a modern 1960s aluminum Christmas tree. The silver tree was minimally decorated with clear lights, electric-blue satin ornaments, and white candy canes…saved from year to year and beyond being edible. The crowning glory was a matching mercury glass tree finial. To enhance the affect of radiance, a light with a rotating disc of blue and clear sat exactly one yard-stick-measure away. I remember as a child running my hands along the soft aluminum “needles” and feeling the smoothness of the satin ornaments. I was often gently scolded for petting the tree.

Grandmother’s home parish was St. James and only a block away. Grandfather, a Protestant by birth and Freemason by choice, never enter the church but often escorted his wife to and from Mass on Saturday nights.

I remember Christmases and quiet winter nights walking home with grandmother after Midnight Mass. Her steps were always matched to mine so that I walked steadily beside her…but never clumsily trying to keep pace. Her hat, a Betmar black wool cloche, custom trimmed with pheasant feathers from grandfather, sat perfectly over her brow. I mimicked her impeccable posture, even while walking through ice and snow as I held her kid-gloved hand.

When we turned off the sidewalk and up the long drive to the house, my grandfather would have already pulled open the picture-window curtains and plugged in the lights of the silver tree. It brightened our walk to the house, tossing rays across the yard and making the snow a glistening blue; giving light to what was love. My grandfather stood to the side of the tree, and looking to my grandmother would smile at the delight on her face. She, releasing my hand, would place hers on her chest in reply.

This is what I remember most about the silver tree, how it illuminated love in the night and for a moment in time alleviated the darkness of childhood. Christmas for me was about love in contrasts. In the home of Harold and Margaret, Irish gaiety blended with Italian faithfulness. And the results? Two no greater gifts to a child: fidelity and the joy of life.

Eternal rest grant unto them Oh Lord.