For the Poor in Spirit

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The first day in this month of November is observed in the Catholic Church as All Saints Day. The Gospel reading for that day featured Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1-12. The very first Beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  I have been meditating on the concept of the poor in spirit since then and especially in light of current events. Whatever poor in spirit means, it appears to hold the key to blessedness and wholeness.

The Man of Constant Sorrow

Sometimes people assume that being poor in spirit means being depressed, sad, downcast, and downtrodden. Or that being poor in spirit involves a certain level of beating oneself up emotionally through scrupulosity and unnecessary guilt. Many might be quick to claim such poverty as they can see their own sorrows portrayed in descriptions of hard times and difficulties. The image of the Man of Constant Sorrow resonates with a lot of us.  Especially when our challenges seem to be overwhelming and oppressive. A lighthearted song of the Man of Constant Sorrow appears in the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” performed by the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys. This humorous song pokes fun at the condition of being full of sorrow. It is a play on Isaiah 53:3 which foreshadows Jesus as “spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain.  Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned…” Poverty of spirit can incorporate a lot of these things and the real sorrows that people might experience are not trivial. However, the state of truly being poor in spirit means even much more.

The posture of the beggar

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that “the word poor seems to represent an Aramaic ‘ányâ (Hebrew ‘anî), bent down, afflicted, miserable, poor.”  The image of a person who is “bent down” is reminiscent of the posture of a beggar.The poor among us are the most vulnerable. They are detached from wealth, prestige, and honor. They are bent over in their depravity. The Catholic Encyclopedia further describes poverty of spirit as not being limited “to economical need and distress, but may comprehend the whole of the painful condition of the poor: their low estate, their social dependence, their defenseless exposure to injustice from the rich and the mighty.”

It is easier for the physically poor to be closer to God because they have no one and nothing on which to cling.  Material possessions can hold a person back as minds and souls can be filled with “stuff” leaving no room for God. In the state of poverty, empty hearts and desires are more bent and disposed towards leaning on God. The experience of feeling empty in one’s life is actually a great gift because it is really a chance to be open to God’s will and guidance. This is why many religious orders take vows of poverty so that they might aid themselves physically in mirroring what they are trying to accomplish spiritually.

Everyone needs “stuff”

Everyone needs “stuff” in this life to survive. We need a place to live, clothing to keep warm, food to eat, and a way to provide for families. Money in itself is morally neutral.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have, e.g., the desire to eat when we are hungry or to warm ourselves when we are cold. These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him (2535).

Physical poverty doesn’t guarantee a free ticket to heaven

However, just because someone is physically poor doesn’t guarantee automatic sainthood. In addition, taking on poverty doesn’t mean avoiding the responsibility to pay for something. A poor person as well as a wealthy one can become spiritually corrupt through greed for those things that are possessed by others. Envy is a sin and goes against the 10th Commandment:  You shall not covet. . . anything that is your neighbor’s. . . You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (Exodus 20:17).  

And a person who refuses to hear or read that any sort of activity might be labeled a sin could indeed be full of his or her own self and therefore be in no way poor in spirit. A lot of persons may want to lay claim to poverty in order to get recognition and to obtain pity. It is also possible for a person to have very little in terms of material possessions and still lack spiritual interest or desire for God. They may resent any idea of religion or any person or thing representative of organized religion. Some might use poverty as an excuse to try to justify acts such as abortion or theft.  They might try to reason that they cannot afford a child or that they are entitled to things that do not belong to them.

What then is being poor in spirit?

Being poor in spirit is being humble. Humility is knowing oneself in relationship to God. It is acknowledging one’s own emptiness, shallowness, and vulnerabilities. In the midst of all of the “stuff” one can still have great spiritual need. It is saying that God is needed and welcome in our lives, in our homes, in our communities, and in our nation.  It is accepting that God is the Creator of the Universe and the source of all life. This involves giving credit to God for accomplishments and achievements.  It is saying with confidence that God is good, even in the face of difficulties. It is praising God through the storms.

Poverty of spirit also involves being thankful. It is being grateful to God for whatever circumstances and all that one has been given or not been given. This does not involve blaming God or others when tough times come our way.

Poverty of spirit is a hunger to be filled and satisfied with God. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said:  “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” 

There is also hunger and thirst for justice which actually is highlighted as the fourth Beatitude:  Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice for they shall have their fill.  This involves those who stand for the Absolute Truth and do not cave into the ideology of Relativism. It is not by coincidence that Jesus gave to us the Eucharist, which is the food for spiritual sustenance and strength through our journey in life.

Seeing Jesus in the poor

Don’t ignore the poor. In them one can indeed see the face of Jesus. Those who are not as nicely dressed, who smell, and can’t afford to impress are opportunities for giving and receiving God’s love. In coming into this world, Jesus chose to be born in a barn and to be the stepson of a simple carpenter. According to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “Our Lord not only preached poverty of Spirit; he also lived it, and he lived it in such a way as to conquer the three kinds of pride: the pride of what one has, which is economic pride; the pride of what one is, which is social pride; and the pride of what one knows, which is intellectual pride.” (From Sheen’s book the Cross and the Beatitudes Lessons on Love and Forgiveness).

To summarize, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen states, “The Beatitude means then:  Blessed are those who are not possessed by their possessions; blessed are they who whether or not they are poor, in fact are poor in their inmost spirit.”  These are very trying times and we might indeed feel like the Man of Constant Sorrow. In whatever state one might be, pray for the grace to live with humility, gratefulness, and with a true sense of Christian charity.

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The Cry for Help: Tips on Seeking Counseling

The squeaky wheel always gets the oil.

Common fears and misconceptions about seeking help

Initiating counseling is a very big step for most people. In fact it is very common to have some apprehension about seeking professional help with personal issues. There are concerns about whether or not treatment is done with compassion and respect. Fear of experiencing shame, ridicule, and humiliation can be an inhibiting factor. They wonder if the counselor will treat them with unconditional positive regard and be non-judgmental. Some have anxiety about the social stigmata associated with mental health issues and have serious questions about confidentiality. Another person might believe that their situation is so unique that no one on this earth has ever had to deal with such issues. On the other hand, there are those that might think that their circumstances are not that significant and hope for eventual resolution with no type of intervention. There are some who feel that in asking for help they are a bother, a nuisance,or that they might be a disruption to the status quo. They might wonder if counseling is really worth the time. Finally, there are those who don’t know how to go about getting the help that they need.

Getting help is a sign of strength not weakness

Mustering up the motivation to seek help is a significant step. It is actually part of the healing process. This is not just because it is the very first step. Asking for help shows a level of commitment for change. It is actually a sign of strength and a good indicator for future healing. Let’s just say that the person who goes to counseling with a willing and open heart has a better prognosis for healing than the one who goes into it kicking and screaming.This is not only intuitive but also backed up by studies. One has to want to be helped.

Compassionate and well-trained professionals

Most counselors and therapists, if not all, go into the field out of a desire to help others. Many have a deep well of compassion and sincere concern for the well-being of their clients. Counselors are trained extensively in the principles of ethics. In order to obtain a state license they are committed to abiding by the rules of confidentiality, client privacy, and rights. Counselors are required to study diversity which involves a lot of focus on treating persons from various cultures and orientations. This is because everyone on the planet is different. All counselors and clients have unique personalities and backgrounds that they bring to the process. Just as there are no two people exactly alike (even twins are different), every counselor using the same theoretical approaches will end up putting a personal spin to it.

On the other hand, people are not so different that counselors cannot find similarities. No one’s problems are too big or too small. Everyone has issues. Think about it. Is there anyone who truly has it all together? This is not talk about characters from movies, popular television programs, or novels. Is there anyone who in real life does not have challenges?  Life is a journey with hills and valleys. No one is unscathed from trials. Even the picture perfect family has issues scratching below the surface.

A person is not a diagnosis

One concern about the counseling process is with labeling a person with a disorder. In fact, some therapeutic approaches to counseling avoid diagnosing altogether. If done haphazardly the diagnostic process itself can indeed pathologize a person. Some clients have concern about diagnoses on their medical charts following them throughout their entire lives. Insurance companies require diagnostic labels for payment. However, such information given to a third party is protected property as there are specific laws pertaining to patient privacy and confidentiality. Obviously counselors that do not accept insurance reimbursement in most cases have fewer parties involved with a client’s personal information. Whatever the situation, it is important to remember that a client is not a diagnosis. A person with depression or anxiety has just as much dignity as a person with a heart disease or high blood pressure. A person would never be labeled a heart attack or a hypertensive. Neither should one be called a manic or a schizophrenic.

Some not so obvious ways people go about asking for help

There are many ways that people might go about asking for help. While some do actually scream for it, many do it nonverbally. They drop clues and ask in ways that are not so obvious. Children often beg for help by acting out and/or misbehaving. This is because unconsciously they discover that attention for negative activity is better than no attention at all.  Some teens and young adults might show a dramatic change in their behavior for the worse.  A previously good student might suddenly start failing most subjects in school. A person who is previously outgoing and talkative might become significantly introverted and reserved. Someone who is usually calm might become more easily agitated or have frequent crying episodes. Or a person might appear to be unrealistically happy. It is common for some to deny they need any help. Or another might have trouble just asking.

An example of motivation and being persistent for change

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) features a man who is insistent on getting the help that he needs.  Bartimeaus is a blind man and a beggar. Upon hearing that Jesus was near, Bartimeaus shouts, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me”.  Others tell him to be quiet but this causes the blind man to shout even louder and to be even more persistent and annoying to those around him. As a result the Gospel reads:  “Jesus said to him in reply, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man replied to Him, ’Master, I want to see.’  Jesus told him, ‘Go your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.”

The squeaky wheel gets the oil

This passage is probably among the best examples of someone being motivated for change. Bartimeaus persisted in spite of the discouragement of others. And his efforts got results. Ever hear of the saying that the squeaky wheel always get the oil?  He didn’t allow his life circumstances to hold him back.  He asked, he sought, he knocked on the door, and “he threw aside his cloak,” for help.  His healing was so life changing that upon receiving his sight, Bartimeaus “followed Him along the way.” His old cloak was left in the dust.

I wonder how many of us are blind or in need of insight but are found weighed down by misconceptions, circumstances, and inhibitions?  An important piece of this Gospel account that cannot be overlooked is the role that Bartimaeaus’ faith played in his recovery. Bartimeaus surrendered himself blindly to Jesus. He abandoned himself in order to obtain help. “Jesus told him, ‘Go your way; your faith has healed you.’  Jesus’ healing was such that it made Bartimeaus whole, not only physically but also spiritually and emotionally.

A lot can be learned from the humble cries of this blind beggar.

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Please Join in Prayer, Fasting, and Adoration for the National Election

Please join in prayer, fasting, and adoration for our national election.

Something we can all agree upon.
I’m sure that everyone can agree that our country needs all the prayer that it can get. No matter what your political orientation happens to be, it is a great idea to pray for our country as we approach our national election. A friend of mine passed along this prayer card, information and invitation:
“The United States of America faces the most serious decision in our nation’s history on November 6. We are asking all to join in 3 days of prayer, fasting and adoration November 3, 4 and 5 to implore God’s mercy upon our Country in this most important election.
 The inspiration for these 3 days of fasting and prayer is found in the book of Esther. Queen Esther, when informed of the possible annihilation of her people, called for a three-day fast prior to her interceding with the king on behalf of her people.
 Mary had been likened to Esther as she continually intercedes with the King of kings on our behalf. The nation has been entrusted to her under the title of Immaculate Conception. Let us ask her to pray with us and for us that we, as people, will choose life.”
 “Who knows but that is was for a time like this that you obtained the royal dignity?” Esther 4:14
(For those who are not Catholic who may be reading this post, “Adoration” is prayer before Jesus in the consecrated Host on the altar in the Catholic Church, also referred to as the “Blessed Sacrament.”  If one does not have access to the “Blessed Sacrament” in a Catholic Church, then spending time in prayer for our country in your Church is helpful.  Do whatever you can.  Also if you are pregnant, nursing, and/or have health issues please use prudence in fasting.  Such a person could take on fasting from a particular food item that you usually enjoy such as meat, or reducing the size of your meals, and/or restraining from a favored activity for the three days).
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Beyond Lives of Quiet Desperation: Moving from Surviving and Coping to Really Thriving

(c) 2012 Bernard Eden. A peaceful tree in Hawaii. Thriving means being content in whatever situation we might find ourselves. It also means taking time to appreciate the wonders of nature and to have awe for God.

What is it to really thrive?

Do you feel as though life has been passing you by? Are you waiting for your ship to come in? Do you find yourself asking if this is all there is to life?

Not long ago I was flipping through channels on the television when I chanced upon a point in a program where someone was saying that his or her objective in life was much more than just survival and coping with circumstances. This person wanted to really thrive. What is it to really thrive? This struck a chord with me and is something that I have been meditating on for quite a while.


Many go throughout life in what might be termed as the survival mode. Henry David Thoreau famously once wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They chug along just doing the best that they can with what they can get. Focus is on obtaining basic physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, sex, and safety. These are very real issues for everyone but especially for those who live in or on the brink of poverty, unemployment, and/or underemployment. This also pertains to those who are trying to live in spite of physical challenges and health issues.

Fight or flight. When the threat of danger approaches, our bodies are naturally wired for fight or flight.This goes back to day of the cave man where surviving an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger meant either slaying the beast or running away.  In either instance the adrenaline is flowing, the heart is racing, the senses are on alert, and the blood pressure is up.  Although no one today has face-to-face encounters with live prehistoric creatures; many still have modern wild dinosaurs that emerge in the course of everyday life that trigger the old fight or flight response. This is sometimes conscious, but most often it is unconscious. Usually there are no physical monsters at all just things and circumstances that are reminiscent of them. Life in the big city is full of stimuli that bombard that senses.  Anything that seems like the saber-toothed tiger triggers the physiological fight or flight. 

In addition, when an immediate threat is over many have great difficulty returning to their baseline relaxation state.They have trouble turning off the fight or flight switch. A perceived danger can swing a person into overdrive quicker than the brain can mentally process. Over time a person can become more and more broken down physically, psychologically, and even spiritually. Anxiety attacks prevail. An extreme form of this may take on characteristics similar to Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).

Withdrawal and avoidance. There are other types of fight or flight responses that a person might fall into. A person might become combative, irritable, and/or have difficulty managing anger. Another manifestation is seen in a person who might try to avoid anything perceived as a stressor, or to flee from anxieties. Some might even withdraw altogether in relationships and have difficulty making decisions, commitments, and evade responsibilities.

Psychological needs. In addition to the physical needs, there are some very real psychological needs and challenges as well. Psychologists have shown that the needs of love, belongingness, self-esteem, respect, achievement, and meaning are sometimes even more essential than food.  

Spiritual needs. There are also spiritual needs of which some people literally starve themselves.  A person can have everything in terms of material possessions, fame, and fortune but yet still be very empty inside. They build bigger and bigger warehouses to hold all of their goods to no avail. In the Gospel of Luke (12:15) Jesus gives the warning, Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Developing coping skills.

Many seek out counseling in an effort to develop coping skills superior to the old intrinsic fighting or fleeing behaviors and to stop their biological systems from physically going into overdrive. Coping skills help a person transition from being a victim to taking control over their circumstances.

Addictions.  The survival mode can get out of balance and result in less than optimal coping skills. Addictive behaviors can happen when a person tries to self-medicate to deaden or heighten their senses, to be avoidant, to flee from circumstances, to find meaning, to obtain comfort, to relieve boredom, and/or to just satisfy curiosity.  Studies have shown that such attempts at self-soothing behavior can be both conscious and unconscious.  Addictions do not always take the form of drugs, but also can be manifested in terms of behaviors. Sex addictions, shopping, and gambling are common examples of activities that produce artificial highs and a false sense of coping.

Chemical imbalances.   Some persons through no fault of their own might experience chemical imbalances. A common example is what happens when a person might have swings in blood sugar with hunger. They might become easily irritated and impatient due to changes in insulin in their body. There are others that are biologically predisposed to overdrinking and over indulging. Some might seek comfort through overeating. However there are also those who engage in not eating at all. Though not in every case, cigarette smoking and marijuana usage has been linked to people challenged with serious psychological conditions and mental illness.  Such persons could indeed be searching for balance and trying to find a more optimal way to get through their lives. Although from a diagnostic standpoint, it is a gray area of whether substance abuse causes mental illness, is a form of escape from psychological distress, both, or neither. One sure thing is that an addiction doesn’t make things any better in the long or even short run. In psychology it is common that those who fight some sort of addiction also have a comorbid condition or conditions. By comorbid  a person has more than one diagnosis complicating  their emotional health picture.


Life is a journey.  That journey involves peaks and valleys. It also involves running into and away from monsters.  But at the same time it would be nice to realize that we can do more than just survive and cope through life.  We are more than victims in the jungle.  We can thrive. Thriving implies growing and making progress.  Interestingly, one can be on the brink of death and still thrive. One can be physically starving and still thrive.  A person who has been in the valley of addictions can still rebound to thrive. Everyone has encountered at least one person in his or her life that is a blessing to others through their suffering. This is what testimonies are made of.  We don’t have to look too far to find a Savior who was crucified, died, and was resurrected.

What is thriving?  Thriving is an attitude and a state of the soul. It is learning how to be content with whatever state we might find ourselves.  Sure, everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants peace. But many confuse happiness with pleasure and crumble in the midst of a storm. It is being able to appreciate and value the joy and love that can be found in relationships with others. It is taking the time to have wonder at the beauty of the natural world around us. It is being in awe of God. It is rising above the flight or fight response.  Sometimes it means calmly standing up to the saber-toothed tiger with complete confidence. It does not mean being the biggest or the greatest. Often it means being the most humble. This sounds next to impossible, doesn’t it?  But we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

Tools for thriving. Prayer and participation in the Sacraments are essential for thriving. We can obtain grace from these things. Grace is participation in the life of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997). Unfortunately many have imposed spiritual starvation upon themselves. In the medical world, a baby that refuses to eat is labeled as having “failure to thrive.” We are more than animals that are fighting and fleeing creatures in the jungle.  In the spiritual life many of us are still babies and we do indeed need spiritual food to thrive. This life is not all that there is. We have souls that need to be fed and nurtured for life here in preparation for eternity.

Similarly tested in every way.  This past Sunday’s New Testament reading (October 21, 2012) spoke of our source of strength:  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.  So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”

Help comes from One who did not spare Himself from the trials and difficulties of this world but rather is a trailblazer through the storm. Jesus has said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”  This sounds a lot like thriving to me.


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Kateri Tekakwitha to Become the First Native American Saint on October 21, 2012

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Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, will become the first Native American saint. She will be canonized along with six others at the Vatican this Sunday on October 21, 2012.

Disfigured and blinded by smallpox

Kateri Tekakwitha was a Native American Algonquin-Mohawk woman born in 1656 in the upstate New York area of what is now known as Auriesville. Her parents and siblings had contracted smallpox when Kateri was four years old leaving her an orphan. The disease had also attacked Kateri which disfigured her face and left her almost blind.  As a result she was given the designation,“Tekakwitha” which means “she who bumps into things.”  She was adopted by her Uncle who became chief of the tribe.

Converted to Catholicism

Jesuit Missionaries called the “Blackrobes” lived in her village in accordance with a treaty between the tribe with the French.  She converted to Catholicism in spite of opposition from her Uncle and tribe. She was baptized Kateri (Catherine) on Easter Sunday. After her conversion, she experienced a lot of hostility and difficulties from her community.  She was very shy, modest, and often covered her face because of her smallpox scars. She ended up leaving her village and took a 200-mile walking journey through thick forest, swamps, and streams to a Christian Native American village at Sault St. Louis, near Montreal.

A life dedicated to God

Her life was one that was dedicated to God. She spent long hours in prayer, fasting, and performing many penances.  She was focused on helping the aged, sick, and less fortunate around her. She also enjoyed going into the woods alone in order to prayer and commune with God. She would often fashion crosses out of sticks and place them throughout the forest. At the age of 23 she took a vow of virginity, which was never done by any of the Native American women whose lives usually depended on marriage. She wanted to form a religious community but was discouraged from doing so.

“Jesus I love You.”

She died at the age of 24 in 1680. Her last words were “Jesus, I love You.” At that time witnesses stated that her disfigured face changed color and transformed into a healthy beautiful one. Many miracles and supernatural events have been attributed to her after her death over 300 years ago.

A medically inexplicable cure

Kateri Tekakwitha was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. The final miracle that propelled Kateri Tekakwitha to sainthood involved the 2006 healing of a five-year-old boy from flesh-eating bacteria that had rapidly spread from an infected cut on his lip. The boy was on the brink of death and his parents were making plans for his organ donation.  After family members, friends, and his community prayed for intercession and placed the relic of Kateri by the boy, he miraculously recovered. The Vatican had certified that the miracle was deemed “a medically inexplicable cure” performed through the intercession of Blessed Kateri. On October 21, 2012 Blessed Kateri will be canonized.

A heroic example

“In this day and age, when the pleasure-principle so dominates our society, and when people expend all kinds of time, effort and energy to remove the Cross from Christianity and to escape the sometimes harsh realities and responsibilities of mature Christian living, Kateri Tekakwitha stands as a heroic example of how to integrate the mystery of the Cross with the mystery of the Resurrection in a way that gives honor and glory to God and that ensures loving service to His people.”-Most Reverend Howard J. Hubbard, DD, Bishop of Albany, N.Y. (Obtained from

Kateri Tekawitha’s life is one that shows how she persevered in spite of all obstacles to follow her faith and convictions. She became Catholic when it was not popular in her culture and among her peers to do so. Kateri Tekawitha’s life is a testimony of how God chooses the weak and makes them strong. She is called the “Lily of the Mohawks” because of her purity.

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For All Who Have Difficulty Praying

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(c) 2012 Bernard Eden. St. Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy by Bernini. Famous sculpture appears in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome

A saint who had a tough time in prayer

Today’s saint sympathizes with all of those who have difficulty in prayer.  Because like most of us, she experienced the distractions of everyday life, a wandering mind, hardships, boredom, challenges, and everything possible to pull her away from lifting her heart up to God.  It is hard to imagine that a saint who eventually became a spiritual Doctor of the Church once had a tough time praying.  But she did.

The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection

October 15 is the Feast Day of a Doctor of the Church and the Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1585).  She is also referred to as St. Teresa of Jesus. She is known for her profound writings on prayer and the spiritual life.  Her works include her Autobiography as well as deep mystical reflections in The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. She wrote of castles and mansions but not the type that most of us are familiar with in fairy tales.  Rather she described the castle of one’s interior heart and the soul’s journey in achieving union with God.

Off to Africa to get her head chopped off

St. Teresa was born in the Avila province of Spain on March 28, 1515. At the age of about seven, St. Teresa ran away from home with one of her brothers in hopes of going to Africa to become a martyr.  She figured that in such a way they would get to see Jesus quicker. Their plan was to seek out the Moors in order to beg for beheading. Their little adventure became short-lived after barely getting out of the neighborhood. So they attempted to become hermits in their own back yard. In the midst of these acts of piety, St. Teresa eventually grew into a typical teenager of the 1500s in that she also enjoyed reading romance novels, fashion, flirting, and parties.    

 Convent was quite the social center in her day

At the age of 15, St. Teresa’s mother died. She had difficulty adjusting to the death of her mother so her father sent her to live in a convent. St. Teresa actually found the nuns there to be quite the socialites and less strict than her own father. During her day, the convents were places where many women went because they had no other place to go. Their habits were worn attractively and the parlors were full of visitors that included young men.

St. Teresa considered herself to be quite the sinner. Upon taking a vocation, she tried to embrace the Carmelite order very seriously. She dedicated herself to long hours of prayer of which she felt unsuccessful for many years.  The environment of the busy convent became a hindrance for her. A likeable and popular person, she felt herself becoming easily caught up in the gossip, flattery, and social events surrounding her community.

Struck down with illness

Then she became very ill with malaria and went into a coma for several days. Many thought that she was dead and started digging her grave. After surviving this event she became paralyzed for three years and never regained perfect health. At this time she encountered even greater difficulty in being able to pray.  She was easily distracted and would come up with whatever excuses she could find not to pray.  It wasn’t until she was 41 years old that a priest convinced her to take up praying again. Gradually she progressed from being able to recollect her thoughts, to having devotions of silence, to experiencing ecstasies, visions, and spiritual union with God.  It was out of these experiences that she became a master of mystical theology and went about reforming her Carmelite order. Along with St. John of the Cross, she became the founder of the Discalced Carmelites.

Some of St. Teresa’s advice on prayer

The advice that St. Teresa gives about prayer comes out of her own personal experience. Her works, very profound and detailed, make them a challenge to describe in a few short words. Yet, they contain simple wisdom that can be understood by anyone with childlike faith.  According to St. Teresa:

“Contemplative prayer [oración mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”


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The Columbus and Grandpa We May Never Know

(c) 2012 The Catholic Counselor Lady. Grandpa “Benedetto Columbo’s” makeshift Santa Maria on a trip from New York to California.

Grandpa was quite the storyteller

Grandpa was a man for stories.  His tales were something that I thoroughly enjoyed as a wide-eyed kid.  Sitting on his lap, I always wanted him to share the same ones over and over again. His grandkids heard them around bonfires during many of his camping trips. This natural troubadour’s repertoire included everything from two characters he created named Chitty Pop and Pop Chitty that spit water melon seeds, to a tale of a ghost cat that walked on a piano, to a recitation of “Mushy Meow” in Italian, to recapping Bible stories and parables, and to perking our curiosity as he spoke of “undiscovered territory” that he claimed still existed on this planet.

A descendent of Christopher Columbus?

My Grandfather Joseph Salvatore also has been known to tell family members that he was a descendant of Christopher Columbus. However, this was something that none of us took very seriously— until recently.

Grandpa Joe not Joe

It was with great shock recently that my cousin obtained his birth certificate. The Grandpa who had always been called “Joe” was actually named “Benedetto Columbo Salvatore” at his birth in 1917. This was also the name of an older sibling who had predeceased him as an infant. We had always known Grandpa as Joseph Benjamin Salvatore. We discovered that his birth certificate was amended in 1941. Benedetto Columbo was literally crossed out and replaced with “Joseph”.  We don’t know the reasoning behind this change. Most likely, he was actually called “Joseph” all of his life as the name Joseph appears in the old census records. We could jokingly theorize that his name was changed for the witness protection program as he was an Italian in Niagara Falls. However, more likely he just didn’t want to be named after a deceased older brother.

We don’t know much at all about Grandpa and his family that came from Italy.  And the emergence of Columbo on his birth certificate does perk everyone’s curiosity as to the fact and fiction behind Grandpa’s claims of ancestry to Christopher Columbus. Fact or fiction, we may never know.

Researching ancestry of Christopher Columbus next to impossible

Researching the ancestry of Christopher Columbus is a formidable task including the fact that everything that is published is surrounded in controversy.  I tried to find a connection to the family name of Salvatore with Columbus and Colon (the Spanish version) but so far came up empty-handed. I have only scratched the surface of such an investigation. This is a job for someone beyond professional. The generations are shrouded with name changes and migrations across countries and even continents which are not atypical for most families.  Tradition has it that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He moved to Spain and controversy still exists on where he actually died. I have even found some sources that speculate that Christopher Columbus had some Jewish ancestry as well.

An MSNBC news article from May 19, 2006 verifies that the bones of Christopher Columbus are buried in a Cathedral in Seville, Spain.  A forensic team confirmed that the DNA extracted from fragments of these bones match those from Christopher Columbus’ brother Diego.  At the same time, the Dominican Republic also claims to have the remains of Christopher Columbus.  Which may be indeed true, if body parts were divided up throughout the years which was commonly done with famous persons and saints in the past.

Curious Salvatore and Columbus connections

My Grandpa Joseph’s father’s family was from Mignano, Italy near Naples.  It is not known if Mignano was my Great Grandfather’s last stop before New York or if it was a centuries-long family foothold.  I do know that a street in Mignano bears the family name:  Via Salvatore.  There is also a Via Columbo.  But also in Italy, names like Salvatore and Columbus are as common as Smith and Jones.  A quick google of Christopher Columbus genealogy returned a file that said the name Christopher Columbus appears in over 59 million profiles.

The controversial Christopher Columbus

This year October 8 marks the observance of Columbus Day in the United States. Some people get a day off from work and school, others don’t. These days much of the opinion of Christopher Columbus is mixed. He had been accredited to discovering America but many say that this country was not discovered. It was already populated by the Native Americans long before his infamous voyage.  But for Christopher Columbus and the people of Europe, it was indeed a discovery, as it was a whole continent which was previously unknown to them.

Could Grandpa have a genetic factor from Columbus for adventure?

I will be bold in saying that my Grandfather Joe’s love for discovery and the unknown was seen in his stories and life.  Particularly curious was his ranting about territories that were yet to be discovered.  Could it be that he indeed had a gene that was part of our infamous Explorer Columbus?  My Grandfather did go about discovering his world in the best way that he knew for his resources and state in life at the time.  His Santa Maria was his homemade travel trailer that he took on cross-country trips from New York to California.  Not once, but several times. It was quite an adventure in the mid 1940-70s.  I was even invited to go once, but was talked out of it by my Mother who convinced me that I would have been uncomfortable travelling across Death Valley in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

Christopher Columbus’ sense of adventure, boldness, and adherence to convictions is well stated in the following passage:  “It is for the boldness of his conception and his magnificent courage in laying his life on the line to carry it out that Christopher Columbus is most rightly honored. It was these qualities that Queen Isabel of Spain recognized in him, that caused her to override the cautious advice of counsellors doubtful that such an unprecedented enterprise could succeed. Isabel knew nothing of navigation and little of world geography, but she was a superb judge of men and women. It was to Columbus the man and to Columbus the devoted Catholic that she gave her support.” (From Honoring Christopher Columbus, by Warren H. Carroll).

Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic

Christopher Columbus was a third order Franciscan and took friars with him on his voyages.  He carefully chose the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels on August 2, 1492 to set out on his voyage to “discover” America.  He was a deeply religious man. His journey was a sort of mission trip with the search for gold along the way.  His crew consisted of a lot of rough men and rascals but Columbus commanded a ship that held regular Masses, prayers, fasting, and observance of religious holidays. The desire to spread the Catholic faith appeared to be a priority in his writings.

Christopher Columbus as a flawed hero

However, Christopher Columbus was a flawed hero.  He had been a pirate.  He had a child out of wedlock.  His grandson Don Luis Colon, was described as turning “out to be a wastrel who married four times and left numerous children.”(  His purported discovery of America led to the destruction of many Native communities through disease and abuses.  Christopher Columbus definitely had his shortcomings and was not without sin. While we cannot downplay the suffering that was experienced by the aboriginal people of American, at the same time, Christopher Columbus was not a sole participant nor total decisionmaker  in what happened.  Dinesh D’Sousa describes Columbus as “a typical man of his time.” Typical or atypical he displayed a sense of mission and boldness. He is not a Saint in the Catholic Church, but definitely a person of influence.  He clearly made an impression on my old Grandfather and his family.

We may never know

We may never know if Grandpa was fabricating a story of being related to Christopher Columbus.  Although it appears that DNA evidence does exist.  If any of my kin is up to it, it would be interesting to see if we indeed have a biological connection. But also consider this: we might also have a genetic connection to the Native people that Columbus “discovered”in America!  Grandma Pearl, she has another story and our Native American roots are yet to be discovered through her as well!

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My Favorite Little Friar: St. Francis of Assisi

A depiction of St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. Photo of painting taken by my husband while traveling in Assisi.

Of big beautiful basilicas

My art professor flashed an image of a big beautiful Church on the overheads.  It was a class in my undergraduate program at a Southern Baptist college where I was required to give the name, date, artist, and technique of the work.  It was really a lesson in memorization where I frantically scribbled hundreds of images and facts on note cards in order to cram the information into my brain before a test. To be quite honest, I did not remember the date, artist, and technique of those paintings in that Basilica six months after having that class.  It was all committed to short-term memory. However, out of all of that information, there was a name that stayed with me. This was the first time that I had learned of St. Francis of Assisi which was in 1982.

Over 20 years later in October 2003, I found myself on a visit to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. This time, no longer a student of art, nor a Southern Baptist; I was on a pilgrimage for the Beatification of Mother Teresa where a stop also had been planned to Assisi.  Back in my days as a freshman in college, I never even thought that I would actually one day be able to go to Assisi. I didn’t even know to wish or even pray for such.

Not as a student of art, but as a believer on a pilgrimage

Imagine the joy of encountering Assisi not as a student of art at a museum, but as a believer in the Church on a pilgrimage. We had entered the lower Church first, had Mass, and then visited the crypt of St. Francis. After spending quite some time in the lower Church, I thought that this was all there was. Then we were taken to view the upper Church which contained the infamous works by Giotto – the same images that my art professor had flashed on overheads back in 1982.

In 1997 a series of earthquakes had hit Assisi causing huge damage and destruction to ancient buildings in the area. Many of the priceless frescoes by Giotto that depicted the life of St. Francis literally slid off of the walls in the upper Church and crumbled into tiny fragments and pieces. On my visit in 2003 many of these were in the process of reconstruction and restoration.  But in spite the damage done to the Basilica by the earthquake, the life of the humble little friar continues to have influence even to this day, with and without the art work. The pure and joyful spirituality of St. Francis continues to leave an imprint in the Catholic Church.

I remember visiting the hills around Assisi where St. Francis had often gone and prayed. There was an area there where he, as a frail man, had slept on a slab of rock. I was fascinated by the little crosses that had been carved into the landscape there by pilgrims and perhaps even St. Francis himself.  I kept thinking of the Stations of the Cross where it is prayed, We adore You O Christ and we bless You. Because by your holy cross You have redeemed the world.”  I have heard that this prayer originated with St. Francis.

The celebration of the Little Friar is upon us

October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi.  Born in Assisi in 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant, he is perhaps one of the most famous and venerated Saints of the Church.  A lot of people know him as the patron saint of animals and ecology. This time of year many bring their pets to be blessed at many Churches, particularly those that are run by Franciscan friars.

St. Francis is also noted for having received the stigmata which are the Crucifixion marks of Christ. St. Francis had renounced his life of luxury and instead took on the habit of which his friars are still known today. Rather than finding a bride, St. Francis told everyone he was married to “lady poverty,” which was not an old woman on welfare that lived on his street.  “Lady poverty” was his term for making a vow of poverty and being a helper to the less fortunate.

St. Francis “Repair my Church”

While praying in the Church of San Damiano near his home in Assisi the icon of the Crucified Christ there told him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My Church, which you can see, has fallen into ruins.”  He took this quite literally and went about rebuilding the little Church of San Damiano. At the same time, however through his faith and humility he went about rebuilding the Church spiritually as well. Though never a priest himself, St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan order.

Thoughts of St. Francis and Assisi make me long to go back to that town. I had another chance a few years ago on a quick day trip from Rome. More locally, I have had the opportunity to volunteer in the adoration program at Marytown in Libertyville, IL which is overseen by the Conventual Franciscan friars.  At my Confirmation in May 2003, I chose the name Mary Frances out of my fondness for the saint.  Later, I discovered that my great grandparents who had migrated from Italy in the early 1900s also bore the first names of Mary and Francesco, a fact that I did not know. (For relatives who are screaming Teresa, yes, first names — great grandma was Maria Teresa and great grandpa was Francesco).  Oh yeah, and grandpa was Benedetto (even though we called him Joe) and great great grandpa was Benedetto also who lived not far from Montecassino.  But that is a story for another blog. 

One never grows tired of this humble and fascinating saint.  If you get a chance, check out your local Franciscan Church, rent the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, or at least read a copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis which contain stories on the life of St. Francis.  You will be delighted.

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Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry: Advice on Coping from a Saint

Truck with Padre Pio image. (Obtained from google images).

Tractor trailers bear his image.

In Italy, it is not uncommon to see semi-tractor trailers zipping down the highway boasting an image of an infamous Capuchin friar.  On my own visits to Rome, I have seen this on more than one occasion and just about every practicing Roman Catholic, and probably even some non-practicing but Italian at heart can speak of this interesting guy. It is no wonder why I love that country! September 23 marks the feast day of this fascinating modern-day saint. 

St. Padre Pio de Pietrelcina (1887-1968), was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina in a small town in southern Italy.  He was noted to have been a very devout child and felt called to the priesthood at a very early age.  When he joined the Capuchins he was given the name Pius (Pio in Italian) and became known as Padre Pio.  Six years after his ordination he was assigned to a small community at the Our Lady of Grace Capuchin friary located in San Giovanni Rotundo.

The gift of the stigmata.

He was an extraordinary priest known for his supernatural gifts and stigmata.  On September 20, 1918 after celebrating Mass and making a thanksgiving, St. Padre Pio had a vision of Jesus. After the vision the wounds of Christ appeared on his hands, feet, and side.  Medical authorities who repeatedly investigated the stigmata could not offer a scientific explanation for St. Padre Pio’s gaping bleeding sores that emitted a fragrance described by many as violets, roses, and/or tobacco.  The smell is referred to as the Odor of Sanctity. These wounds remained on him for the last 50 years of his life and mysteriously healed leaving no scars after his death. From his letter to Padre Benedetto on Oct. 18, 1918, Padre Pio wrote (obtained from St. John Cantius Church in Chicago website):

On the morning of the 20th of last month, in the choir, after I had celebrated Mass I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. […] I saw before me a mysterious person similar to the one I had seen on the evening of 5 August. The only difference was that his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. This sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should have died if the Lord had not intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest.

The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel deep in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs? I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away, not the wound or the pain, which is impossible since I wish to be inebriated with pain, but these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation.

The phenomena of bilocation and ability to read souls.

St. Padre Pio has also been associated with a phenomenon known as bilocation. Many a multi-tasking woman and busy parent have wished for the gift of bilocation. This is the supernatural ability to be at more than one place at a time. Many eye witnesses account several occasions that this humble friar had the ability to supernaturally travel and be at another location when at the same time be at work in his friary.  Some say that he had been across the globe in seconds! In addition, he was known to have the ability to read souls during confession. Word of his stigmata, supernatural gifts, and miracles spread and the tiny village of San Giovanni Rotundo was flooded with pilgrims.

A life of suffering.

Throughout his life he suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  He experienced bouts of ill-health, which included tuberculosis, typhoid fever, bronchitis, gastritis, otitis, tumors, hernia, arthritis, and extraordinarily high fevers. He was discharged from military service after barely four months due to his frailty.  Because of the bazaar nature of his wounds, on more than one occasion he was forbidden by his superiors to celebrate the Mass and hear confessions. Rather than expose his stigmata, he tried to hide the wounds, as he felt humiliated by them. But he also desired to suffer with Christ and to offer his sufferings for the World War which was going on at the time. St. Padre Pio first received a wound on his side which reportedly was a pierce into his heart. Shortly thereafter he received the other wounds of the stigma.  Incidentally, a first class relic of a blood-stained cloth from where St. Padre Pio’s side was wounded is on display for veneration at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, IL.

I have been to San Giovanni Rotundo.

My family and I have had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotundo in Italy.  This little town is noted to have a medical center named “Home for the Relief of Suffering” which was established by St. Padre Pio.  My husband was able to tour that facility.  At the church in San Giovanni Rotundo, we were able to receive a blessing from one of the bloody gloves of St. Padre Pio.  We were able to examine the glove up close and to touch it.  I remember the black glove being placed on a table close by where I was standing.  Everyone took turns holding the glove and touching it to articles that we had brought with us.

St. Padre Pio’s advice for spiritual growth.

St. Padre’s five rules for spiritual growth were simple:  weekly confession, daily Communion, spiritual reading, meditation, and examination of conscience.  His advice to his spiritual sons and daughters were to “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”  He told them to recognize God in all things and to desire to do the will of God above all things. 

Pray, hope and don’t worry appears to be a simple enough of a formula.  Unfortunately however it can seem very difficult for those of us who are worry warts.  A reminder from such an extraordinary but humble Saint as Padre Pio can help.  They are words we really need to repeat to ourselves everyday.  St. Padre Pio, pray for us.

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Exaltation of the Cross


Hans Burgkmair crucifx ca. 1473

This week the Church observed the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  The Cross for us is like a compass that points our way through difficulties.  Instead of grumbling in the wilderness of our lives, wondering where God has led us, we can look to the Cross to be our guide.  It is not only healthy spiritually, but also advantageous emotionally to cling to the Cross.  None of us are spared difficulties.  What makes the difference is how we embrace them.

I’ve heard it asked so many times.  Someone experiences a tragedy.  Something terrible has happened.  A person asks, “Where is God?”  Then they spend the rest of their life and/or countless number of years blaming God for what happened to them.  They wonder what the Almighty God was doing when their difficulties hit the fan. 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The Book of Job is an example of suffering in the Old Testament.  As a brief summary, Job was a wealthy righteous man who found himself afflicted when he lost riches, family, and became covered with sores.  At that time, it was the custom of the people to believe that suffering was given as a punishment from God. Therefore when a person encountered a tragedy, people would search for what grave sin a person or their family had committed.  But the lesson contained in this Divinely inspired Book of Job is that suffering can happen to the righteous as well as the unrighteous.  In fact, although God doesn’t cause suffering, He can sometimes allow it as a spiritual test and to help strengthen someone.  There is a quote going around on the internet that states:  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”   My Mom always likes to call it, “The School of Hard Knocks.”

What’s the point?

So if something bad happens what is God trying to do?  Where is God?  Though no one can know the mind of God, sometimes people miss the whole point of why Jesus suffered, died, and was resurrected.  He came to help us through this life, not to contribute to the difficulties.  The difficulties that we encounter come naturally as a result of being part of an imperfect world. Suffering and hard times are the consequence of original sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1521).  Sin entered the world when God, out of love, gave mankind choices.  This is because true love involves being able to choose. We can accept Him or reject Him.  We can do His way or our own way.  It is that simple.  A priest friend of mine once told me “God is not pushy.”  Some have tried to purposefully block God out of their lives, their homes, their communities, and their countries.  So when we ask where is God?  We must also ask where we have put Him.

Some of life is a Dark Night of the Soul

People ask:  “I can’t see God, I can’t hear God, I can’t feel God — how do I know that He is here?”  However trite it might sound, this is what faith is all about.  Faith is a gift.  We all have a chance at this gift.  It is not that some get it and others don’t.  It is freely offered to everyone.  Immediately what comes to my mind is that everyone is invited to go to Mass where one can indeed see, hear, and feel God.  One can even “taste and see” through the Eucharist.  This is because Catholics believe that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine which becomes His Body and Blood through the consecration.  In addition to the Sacraments, people can also encounter God through prayer, other people, and in nature.

So then, where is God?

He was on the Cross. He is on the Cross.  It is not like God can be bound by time.  His crucifixion happened for each one of us for all time.  Through our own individual difficulties, He is on the Cross suffering and dying for us.  He leads the path and directs the way.  In fact, He is the Way.  The Cross is not something to ignore, nor stamp under foot, rather it is something that we can look up to and rejoice in.  It is through the Cross that Jesus obtained victory over all sufferings.  A humble soul follows Jesus’ example of humility by picking up his or her own Cross and following Him.

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