My traveling companions for the Lenten journey

My monthly column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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I decided this Lent that I would not travel alone. I asked St. Bernadette, the visionary of Our Lady of Lourdes, if she would accompany me.

In the course of our walk together I am rediscovering someone I had long forgotten but who has not forgotten me.

A classic movie

It began on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes with a suggestion from a friend to watch “The Song of Bernadette,” a critically-acclaimed 1943 movie based on the book by Franz Werfel. It was available on YouTube so I could watch it at my leisure. The movie is long so I viewed it on my tablet over the course of three nights.

Unexpected emotions

That was a good decision. I did not expect to be so moved by the film and was glad I could cry in private. Each time “The Lady” appeared to Bernadette, the tears would flow. I did not know why. Was it the beautiful music? Was it the way Bernadette (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Jones) looked at “The Lady” with such love?

Maybe it was because of Mary herself. Perhaps my heart was telling me how much I missed her in my life.

More, more …

saint bernadette soubirous by francis trochuWhen the movie ended I wanted more. From the bookshelf I pulled out a work by Abbe Francis Trochu entitled Saint Bernadette Soubirous. I was doubtful that a book written over sixty years ago could speak to me today but those fears were soon put to rest.

My “go-to” person

I skipped over the apparitions to my true interest–the life of this saint in the aftermath, as a religious. What I found was a quiet yet powerful holiness based upon the smallest of details. Bernadette would soon become my “go-to” saint for lessons on fidelity, patience, charity, composure and self-control.

A counter-cultural saint

St. Bernadette sought to be hidden and forgotten, a difficult task for someone whose fame was widespread. To desire such things today is counter-cultural, even laughable; recognition and fame are hotly pursued by so many who believe it will supply the love they crave. It is an empty promise. Having experienced it herself, Bernadette knew where the true source lay.

I. Want. This.

from www.findagrave.com
from http://www.findagrave.com

Abbé Trochu writes, ” This triumph of Our Lady of Lourdes rested on [Bernadette’s] own testimony … It would have been enough to turn the head of a conceited youngster. But, forgetful of herself, the unique visionary was thinking solely of the Apparition’s glory, and was lost in her radiance. And so along she went, paying no heed to the crowds, wholly absorbed in her own interior happiness.” (pg. 244)

I want that; to be so attracted to God as to be single-minded, losing myself in heavenly thoughts in the middle of a noisy world. It is that submission to God’s grace, that total immersion into holiness that unleashes the power of transformation.

If I seek to become like Bernadette: faithful, patient, composed and in control of my emotions; if I desire to confront my weaknesses, then I must learn her way of holy absorption.

Starting with Mary

mary and jesusThinking on Mary as Bernadette did is a good start. Mary is the epitome of faithfulness, patience and composure, fueled by love of her Son. Mary longs to mother me and I need mothering. The many tears I shed while watching the movie revealed that longing; it’s time I listened to her call.

The little things

With my two companions I can begin to learn this art of holy absorption by continuing my reading on St. Bernadette, asking for her intercession, and cementing the habit of praying the rosary each day. When I take communion to my homebound friend each week, I can pause for a few moments to hold the Eucharist in my hand as Mary held Jesus as a baby, and together, we can adore the Lord of Hosts. I could also meditate on the Eucharist as St. Bernadette did: “I think to myself that that the Blessed Virgin is giving me the Infant Jesus, I welcome Him, I speak to Him and He speaks to me.”

All little things. All done in secret but never done alone.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Artwork: all photos by Susan W. Bailey

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The most precious of gifts: listening

I created a video for this post with a musical backdrop and images to inspire you. You can read the text below:

Recently I wrote a post about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons
Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons
1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons
Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Note: It turns out Jay and I have something else in common–Foster Dad John’s Critter Room!

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