Back in the choir loft–a humbling and pleasurable challenge

FEBRUARY 26, 2016–Glad to be back in the choir loft

Last night was choir practice. Another night driving in the rain. I’m not good at this going-out-at-night thing; it makes getting up the next morning harder somehow.

I knew that was going to be a stumbling block to joining choir. But I am so glad I joined the choir.

I love how the music lingers in my memory after practice. The radio in my head plays the songs in a constant loop. It creates this peaceful little buzz.

I’ve been listening almost exclusively to choral and classical music for the past several years. Having been in choirs before, I know what it takes to learn these pieces. There’s a lot of tedium involved (and a LOT of waiting  if you’re a soprano like me). I didn’t think I had the patience to learn the music. Besides, despite five years of piano as a kid and a lifetime making music, I don’t read music well.

I also haven’t been in a choir since the 1990s. I did solo singing all that time and now I have learn all over again how to work in a group. It has been a challenge.

A good challenge. A humbling challenge. And a very interesting challenge. And a pleasurable challenge.

Matúš Benian Choir Psallite Deo, Flickr Creative Commons
Matúš Benian Choir Psallite Deo, Flickr Creative Commons

One of the first things I had to learn was how to breathe in a group. Believe it or not, it’s quite different breathing in a group versus solo singing. One night I nearly passed out during rehearsal because I didn’t do it properly (luckily nobody noticed!).

Next, I had to learn to balance the volume of my singing between blending with everyone around me and contributing something to the group. My first inclination was to totally lose myself in the voices around me–that was pulling back too much. Now I am starting to push forward again, still looking for that balance, but contributing more to the group.

Blending with others when you have a heavy vibrato is a challenge! It’s impossible to smooth out my voice completely (and I probably shouldn’t) and I have yet to strike the proper balance. But it will come.

As we learn the pieces, I love meditating on the words. When the music comes together and we sing the song from beginning to end, the prayer becomes sublime.

And then it lingers in my head for days to come.

Yeah, so worth going out at night. So worth getting to church early. So nice being with others at mass, making a joyful noise for the Lord. So great being part of a community.

Yeah, I’m glad I rejoined the choir.


Busting that delusional bubble–a taste of humility

FEBRUARY 23, 2016 — First entry in my spiritual journal. I had a “comeuppance” with God last week. It began with disappointing news which led to doubts and confusion about everything I am doing, and then to other, more painful realizations. I feel like I am squinting under a very bright light, totally naked, utterly exposed. A really raw, uncomfortable feeling! It’s been like that since the weekend. I feel like I lost my footing. And all the while I am preparing a presentation about getting to know yourself better by following the way Jesus did it. Yeah, right! Who feels like the hypocrite now?

So last night I am recording this presentation to make it available here on the website and my words keep accusing me! It took over an hour to record that sucker but you know something? By the end I started smiling because I realized that besides being exposed, I was also the butt of a joke. God has a dear sense of humor. 🙂

I began to feel the worst of it fade just a tad. Last night when going to bed I thought I would take my rosary to bed as clutching it always helps. I found a rosary bracelet that my dearest friend Jackie gave me and I wore it. And this morning I felt a wonderful sense of peace and the beginning of clarity on how to deal with my “comeuppance.”

It’s never fun having one’s delusional bubble burst; man it hurts! But knowing that I can go back to God and make it right, and knowing how kind and caring (and funny) he can be makes it a lot easier to deal with.

God is always near

The Prodigal Son–the rest of story: reflections by Father Steven LaBaire

father-steven-labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from
Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

This Sunday’s gospel is the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). Most folks are familiar will this parable about a Father and his two sons.

OZinOH Prodigal Son IMG_0599, Flickr Creative Commons
OZinOH Prodigal Son IMG_0599, Flickr Creative Commons

The younger son asks for his inheritance and then wastes the money to the point of starvation. The Father compassionately welcomes him back. The “dutiful” stay-at-home elder son protests the welcome given to the younger son. At the end of the story, one wonders whether the older brother will be reconciled with the merciful Father.

Jesus addressed this parable to religious people who disliked Jesus’ table fellowship with “sinners.”

Here are some details about the story
that might help to hear it with ‘new ears”
this coming Sunday. *

  • In Jesus’ time, fathers were discouraged from distributing inheritance during their lifetime. But if he did , a father was still entitled to live off the proceeds while he lived. The younger son acts shamefully, effectively wishing the father were dead. That the father did not explode and discipline on the spot testifies to the depth of his love. The elder son is no better. Instead of protesting the inappropriate property division and refusing his share, he accepts it (v. 12). And he makes no effort to reconcile his father and brother as culture demanded he should. His behavior is equally shameful.

    The younger brother sinks deeper into shame. Losing his money to non-Judeans through wasteful spending makes things worse. He begins to starve. He tries to leech on to a wealthy patron who assigns him a repulsive job of feeding pigs. (Remember, pigs are considered unclean animals in the Jewish tradition.)

  • Still he starves. The carob pods fed to the pigs were the wild variety with bitter berries, nauseating and insufficiently nourishing to humans.
  • Coming to his senses, the younger son resolves return home to become a “hired servant” of his father.  He is willing to accept the shameful fact that the village will disown, reject and physically abuse him for taking his dad’s inheritance and before his death and then losing it to Gentiles. Nonetheless, the younger son judges this a small price to pay for life and food.
  • Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. Return of the Prodigal Son
    Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. Return of the Prodigal Son, Flickr Creative Commons

    The father acts in a way that is shocking for the culture of the time. He runs (very inappropriate for an elder) the gauntlet the village has prepared for the returning wayward son. He publicly forgives the son by kissing him on the cheeks, and heals the broken relationship between them. The best robe is certainly the Father’s. It will guarantee the son’s acceptance by the community at the banquet. The signet ring indicates enormous trust. The sandals are a sign of being a free man in the house, not a servant. (Servants and slaves did not wear sandals.) Killing the calf means the entire village will be invited and prodded toward forgiveness. This size animal can feed over 100 people.

  • Instead of honoring his father by accepting his  brother and playing his appropriate role as chief host at the meal, the elder son publicly insults and humiliates his father (vv. 28-30). The insults are jarring: he addresses his father without a respectful title; he speaks of himself as a “slave” and not a son (v29); he accuses the father of favoritism (him a calf, me not even a goat!); he refuses to acknowledge his brother (“this son of yours”; he invents the claim that his brother lived with prostitutes.
  • In effect, this elder son’s heart has always been elsewhere. He too wishes his Father were already dead.
  • Once again the father replies to the wayward son with love and acts of self-humiliation. He returns insult with an endearing “my child…” He assures him that his inheritance remains intact, and he invites the elder son to join the festivities.

Here the parable ends rather abruptly. What will the elder son do? That is the question the Pharisees and scribes and the modern believer must answer. This is really the story of two lost sons. One was lost, but found. The other… well, we just don’t know…

So, what would you do?

*Much of the background for the remarks in this reflection was found in The Cultural World of Jesus by John J. Pilch and in the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Liturgical notes for Sunday:

This Sunday is called LAETARE SUNDAY. It is the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we reach the mid-point of the Lenten season. The Mass vestments this Sunday are rose colored, rather than the usual Lenten purple.

The custom dates back to the Middle Ages when the Pope carried a single rose in his right hand when returning from Mass on this Sunday. At the time, the rose was a symbol of Christ due to both its being beautiful and yet being covered with thorns. The Pope’s carrying a rose was a visual reminder that the celebration of Christ’s Passion is not far off. Soon we will experience the beauty and the suffering (thorns) of Christ’s love for us.

While the Pope’s custom was abandoned, the symbolism continues through the rose colored vestments worn at Mass.

Holy Week and Easter are not far off. But it isn’t too late to make this Lenten season a time of personal renewal. Remember, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word for” springtime.” During this season, the liturgy invites us to experience a “springtime” from within, a new beginning within our souls. How will your spirit be renewed to embrace the joys and challenges of 2016?

For more aids to your Lenten journey, visit the Lenten Resources page for posts, podcasts, music and videos, plus a stay-at-home mini retreat.

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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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What is it about Pope Francis that causes me to weep?

Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio

“Habemus Papam! “We have a Pope!” Moments after the announcement an elderly man stepped forward, appearing a bit dazed and raising his hand in greeting. Far from a sweeping gesture to a large crowd, it was a simple “hello.” And his greeting to the crowd? “Good evening.”

His face broke into a smile as he addressed the hundreds of thousands before him. His voice was soft, gentle. Before giving the crowd his blessing (the Urbi et Orbi), he asked a favor: could they pray for him? Then he bowed low and the crowd grew silent. And as the scriptures say, the prayers rose up as incense before the Lord.

And I wept.

It would not be the last time that I would weep. I felt very drawn to this man and began looking for every opportunity to learn more about him. With each subsequent article, with each television appearance, I would weep.

I watched Sunday mass being celebrated on March 17 at St. Anne’s just outside the Vatican. Pope Francis looked like any parish priest, wearing simple Lenten robes. After mass, he stood outside and greeted each and every parishioner, often conversing with them. And I wept.

The most compelling image occurred as he arrived for the inaugural mass on March 19. Touring the overflowing crowds at St. Peter’s Square in the pope mobile, Pope Francis suddenly ordered the vehicle to stop. He stepped out and walked towards the crowd, to a disabled man. He kissed the man with such tenderness on the forehead and caressed him. The man’s caretaker beamed and the man broke into a glorious smile.


I saw Jesus in that instant, getting a sense of what it must have been like to have been in His presence when He tended the sick.

I wept again.

And each time I wept, my heart swelled with hope and a burning desire to change, to follow the example of Pope Francis.

In his imitation of Christ, Pope Francis points to Him. His invitation to us is gentle, loving and compelling. I watch him and find myself pondering, wondering how I also can imitate Christ.

Who around me is poor: in need of material goods, uplifting conversation, or just someone being totally present to them? Aren’t they often the people I see every day at work or school, in the marketplace and at home? Don’t I also see them on street corners, holding signs, asking for help?

In his homily to scores of priests at the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass in Rome, Pope Francis referred to the anointing that a priest receives at ordination.

He spoke of Psalm 133:

1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!

2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.

priests at holy thursday chrism mass with pope francis

The anointing received is like the oil on the head of Aaron: it doesn’t remain there merely to give off a sweet fragrance; it overflows, running down his robes.

We may not all be ordained priests but as Christians we are part of the royal priesthood as prescribed in I Peter 2:5; we too are anointed with oil at our baptism and our confirmation. It is not meant to be kept to ourselves as a faded memory. As he exhorted the priests at the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis is exhorting us to step outside of ourselves. The oil cannot help but run down the robes of Aaron, it cannot and must not be contained. It is the Oil of Gladness from the Lord. And we as baptized and confirmed children of God each have that oil, ready to share with those around us.

We too are shepherds of our own little flocks, all those people around us that God entrusts to us. Pope Francis called his priests, all of us, to take on the smell of our flock. And he shows us just how to do it: be like Jesus, be intimate, show love through your touch, your actions, your words. Every simple gesture done to anyone out of love for Jesus is sacred, holy and transformative.

His washing and kissing of the feet of the young people at the Casal del Marmo youth detention center on Holy Thursday is a clear example.


Pope Francis makes me weep. His example opens my heart and prompts me to change.

He is a true Vicar of Christ.

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