In high school we had a religion teacher, named Mr. Matthews, who used to tell us not to worry about memorizing anything from his class but these words: “Love God with your whole mind, heart, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
He would say, “If you come back and see me twenty years from now, I’ll be happy if those words are all you remember.”
Mr. Matthew’s motto was inspired of course by Matthew 22:34-40, which happens to be today’s Gospel reading for the [Optional] Memorial of Saint Louis of France. In this text, Jesus clarifies that love of God and love of neighbor are the two greatest commandments on which everything else depends. To put in another way – without love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians).
The pandemic has shown just how much we need this love in our world. And while it may be challenging to connect with one another right now, there are still ways we can share love with others from wherever we happen to be.
Three Small Ways of Loving God
Three Small Ways of Loving Neighbor
Remember also, we are called to “love your neighbor as yourself.” During this unique and challenging time, are you taking care of your own spiritual, emotional, and physical needs? If you aren’t sure, it may be worth spending some time today writing down a short list of ways you can practice healthy self-care.
If you liked this article, be sure to check out “Living the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy During COVID-19” and “Mental Health and Coronavirus.”
This Easter season, I have been thinking a lot about my late brother Tim, who died in an accident seven years ago - at the age of 24 - while serving as an EMT in Indianapolis, IN. Tim’s death, along with the death of his IEMS partner Cody Medley, left all their friends and families at an inestimable loss.
While I never got to meet Cody personally, I have learned that he was an exceptionally driven and talented young person who also served as a fire cadet before becoming a paramedic. Tim’s story is not much different; he was an Eagle Scout and volunteer EMS before going professional and passing his paramedic certification shortly before he died.
In life, Tim achieved success in almost every field. As a teenager he won academic and musical scholarships and posted regular five-minute miles in outdoor and indoor track. He mastered Mandarin and spent an immersion summer in Shanghai. He participated in a service trip to Jamaica and volunteered back home as a “running buddy” alongside students with special needs in Central Park. These successes, paired with his later commitment to the medical profession, truly made him “A Man for Others” – the Jesuit motto of his alma mater, NYC’s Regis High School.
Only looking backwards have I come to appreciate how brilliant Tim was. Perhaps you have a similar person in your family – someone who is so smart that they are intimidating. Tim was fearless in challenging others (especially those in authority) when he thought they were wrong. I have thought of him throughout this entire pandemic. As a first responder, I know that he would be helping wherever help was needed. As the outspoken person he was, I know he would have choice words for those he felt were ignoring public safety protocols. And most of all, as a cuttingly funny person, I know he would help me laugh during this time.
Tim died three days into Lent, on February 16th, 2013. I have remembered him especially during every Lent and Easter since then. This past Lent was perhaps the most difficult yet. Many say that it takes seven years to heal from losing a loved one. The year 2020 marks seven years for all who loved Tim. To me, I felt healing – which also meant letting my guard down to feel fully the pangs of loss I couldn’t afford to feel in 2013.
The coronavirus situation, if nothing else, has clarified the relationship between life and death. We are all vulnerable humans. This can be a scary thought, but also a freeing one.
This can be a time to meditate on life as what it is – a short chance to grow, love, and serve others. We do not know how long the journey will last. I sometimes think that my brother attacked life the way he did because he might have sensed that he had less time than others. He used to wake me up after midnight, for instance, after I had already gone to bed, and say “Come on bro, get up, let’s make some memories.” At the time I thought he had a screw loose. Now I think he was prophetic.
Recently in the Gospel readings, we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
These words are a balm to all of us who have experienced loss, or who fear loss during these challenging times. As I read this passage, I am touched by the care and concern Jesus shows for his followers. He is also being quite honest with them and reminding them that they will lose him. The promise of peace is made realer by the reality of loss. This is what I receive from today and feel to be true in my own life.
One year after Tim’s death, on Easter Sunday 2014, my family went to Mass in a church we had never been to before. The previous year had been difficult for everyone. Personally, I had not been taking care of myself mentally, physically, or spiritually. In the prior twelve months, I had not felt anything approaching peace. I was experiencing great fear and having awful panic attacks. That morning, sitting in the pews, waiting for Mass to begin, I suddenly noticed all sound around me fade out. I felt a sensation of all the breath leaving my body – and then my next breath was a slow, purposeful breath that was like drinking cool water in the desert. I was able to begin breathing in a deep and rhythmic way. Over the next few minutes, I felt as if warm light was streaming over me, from the head down. It was a feeling of complete release and relief. Ever since, I’ve been hoping to feel that peace again.
Like my brother, I doubted (and still doubt) aspects of my faith. Tim wrestled to understand people who believe that faith and the intellectual life are incompatible. Being the true original that he was, I think he found it difficult at times to imagine a place in Christianity where he fit in. Yet after his death, I learned that some of Tim’s recent writings and reflections expressed the faith of a mature man who trusted in a loving God. I reflect on his words often as I remember my “kid brother” - who responded to numerous life-or-death situations and treated severe injuries which I would be terrified to walk into. Like everything else, Tim’s faith journey happened at a rate and intensity that most of us will never know.
As Easter moves on and we navigate the new normal that is COVID-19, my spiritual suggestion (for what it’s worth) is this: In your prayers, dreams, and doings, try to let fear and hope co-exist. I will try to do the same. If we can hold those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites, we may find that peace can sprout like a flower right in between our hands.
The opening of today’s reading from the Gospel of John depicts Mary Magdalene on the cusp of an encounter with the Risen Christ. “But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white.”
In this moment of bending down and looking into the tomb she thought was empty, Mary provides an everlasting model for those of us seeking the Risen Christ throughout Easter and throughout our lives. Where Jesus’ tomb had been a place of death, it is now a place of resurrection. Where Mary’s tears had symbolized her grief, they now contain her joy.
This amazing moment came on a morning when Mary was vulnerable and traumatized. I cannot imagine what Mary must have been feeling there, alone – but I can only guess that seeing Jesus alive again would have been the last thing on her mind.
When I feel vulnerable, my world feels very small. In grief and pain, it is difficult to “think outside the box” or to think about the “big picture.” In fact, it is difficult to think at all. Many of us are living now from this place of smallness in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. We are currently facing dangers that have fundamentally altered the patterns of our Church life and our society – along with many other woes that can cause us to despair.
The Good News is that none of the woes of the world can separate us from God’s love. As Jesus told the disciples, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:22)
I hope that this Easter week brings you such joy.
And if you still have grief, I invite you to trust that it’s okay, and that God can work within that grief. We can take courage from the example of Mary Magdalene, whose own tears opened the portal between life and death. From Mary’s story and from my own story, I have faith that God can work directly within our sorrow – opening new possibilities when we had thought all the doors closed.
I believe this is where God is most fully present in our lives – in the spaces where we feel lost, abandoned, and confused. In this way, I am hopeful that this Easter season will help all of us to encounter Christ in truly new and unimagined ways.
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Founded in the 17th Century, Saint Patrick’s Day is both a commemoration of Ireland’s patron saint as well as a popular celebration of Irish culture enjoyed worldwide by the Irish and the Irish-at-heart. Folks wear green, host parties and parades, and enjoy Irish food, drink, and dancing. While the holiday holds special significance for Irish-Americans (who represent the largest chunk of the global Irish diaspora), Saint Patrick’s Day is a feast that all are invited to share in.
The lasting, inclusive nature of this holiday has much to do with the Irish people, their fight for freedom, and their collective experience as immigrants in America. Fittingly, Ireland’s patron saint was himself an immigrant to Ireland from his native Roman-British shores. We celebrate Patrick today because he successfully spread Christianity across 5th century Ireland – a mission that forever altered the destiny of the Irish people. Patrick is beloved for preaching in the Gaelic language, for using natural imagery to illustrate Gospel truths, and for driving away superstitious pagan beliefs.
Like many early saints, Patrick’s story is a mixture of legend and fact. However, beyond the colorful lore stands a real person whose deeds and words continue to inspire and affect us. To help you better know the man behind the myth, here are ten fascinating facts about Ireland’s very first bishop:
1. Patrick was not born Irish. While he spent the majority of his life living among and ministering to the Irish people, Patrick was a Roman Briton by birth. His exact birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, but it is believed he was born in Scotland, England, or in northern Wales around 386 A.D.
2. Patrick first came to Ireland as the captive of Irish pirates. Patrick was a teenager when he and “a large number of his father’s slaves” were stolen and sold into slavery by Irish raiders. This began a six-year stay of captivity in Ireland, during which Patrick’s spiritual conversion began while he labored as a shepherd.
3. Patrick escaped slavery with help from a dream. After years of suffering and intense prayer, a voice in his dream said, “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country” [Confessio, 17]. The voice then told him where he would find a ship, some two hundred miles away, to carry him home to Britain and his family.
4. Patrick spent time studying for the priesthood in France. After his return to the Britons, Patrick travelled and continued his studies in Christianity at Auxere, France (formerly Gaul), possibly visiting Marmoutier Abbey in Tours, before being ordained.
5. Patrick received a vision calling him back to Ireland. After his parents begged him to cease his adventures, Patrick received another dream in which a man approached him carrying letters from the Irish people and imploring his return. Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM says, “What is interesting about this dream… is that it came not as a directive from God, but as a plea from the Irish…. Patrick wasn't commanded to bring civilization or salvation to the heathens. He was invited to live among them as Christ's witness.”
6. Patrick’s Irish mission was unpopular. Few of Patrick’s brother clergy shared his sympathy for the Irish people, who were viewed as barbaric and hostile. Patrick’s superiors disapproved of his calling; his Confessio (first-person account of his life) was written partially as a defense and a response to critics of his mission.
7. Patrick wasn’t the first Christian missionary to Ireland. Fr. Jack explains, “There were some Irish Christians, mostly on the eastern and southeastern coast. Many of these were probably British slaves who had been taken into captivity by the Irish. There is a record of a Bishop Palladius being sent to Ireland before Patrick. But the mission of Patrick was unique.”
8. Patrick taught the Gospel through Celtic language and symbolism. Patrick preached effectively in the Gaelic tongue, and he employed pre-existing pagan symbols in transmitting the faith. While Patrick’s use of the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity was likely a later addition to his legend, Patrick’s Confessio specifically details his distinctions between Irish pagan sun worship and Christian worship – including Old Latin wordplay of the words sun and Son. Irish priest Fr. Liam Lawton notes, “the Celtic cross we know today was basically a cross superimposed on the sun… Patrick convert[ed] sun worship to Son worship.”
9. Patrick drove out superstitious practices, rather than snakes. Patrick is said to have driven out “all the snakes of Ireland” into the sea. While the National Museum of Ireland’s fossil collections and records provide no evidence for snake species ever having existed in Ireland, Patrick likely did the Irish a greater service through his concrete and traceable efforts to build churches and ordain Irish priests—efforts which helped to drive out the druids who had formerly dominated Irish spiritual affairs.
10. Patrick wasn’t always associated with the color green. Jumping forward in time – Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations first bloomed in America in the early 1700s, where the Irish diaspora developed them into the holiday we recognize today. However, says NYU professor Marion Casey, “It wasn’t until 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, that the color green became officially associated with the day.” Before then, “The color associated with St. Patrick was blue, as it was featured both in the royal court and on ancient Irish flags. But as the British wore red, the Irish chose to wear green, and they sang the song ‘The Wearing of the Green’ during the rebellion, cementing the color’s relevance in Irish history.”
Wishing you a blessed and fun Saint Patrick’s Day – Sláinte (Health)!
The lives of the Irish saints have been a wonderful inspiration in my life and faith journey. As I am a descendant of Irish immigrants to America, the hagiographies of saints like Patrick, Columba, and Brigid contain threads of Celtic culture and history that help me to understand Ireland better. These stories also help me as I seek God in daily life and in my relationships with others.
Just a few days ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare. Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is considered a patron saint of Ireland. Born in the 5th century, much of her life is detailed only in myth and legend. However, in later biographies, it is agreed that Brigid was born around 450 A.D. to a Christian woman and slave named Broicsech, who herself was baptized by St. Patrick.
Brigid was a generous girl who performed deeds of charity at an early age. She was “veiled,” or accepted into religious life, and later became abbess. From this point on, the miracles attributed to Brigid are fantastic and too numerous to list here.
The most well-known story may be that of Brigid’s cloak. According to legend, Brigid once approached the King of Leinster requesting land on which to build her monastery. When the miserly king refused, Brigid asked, “Give me as much land as my cloak will cover.” Laughing at the small cloak in her arms, the king agreed. Yet Brigid asked four of her helpers to pull the cloak in opposite directions. As the helpers ran north, south, east and west, the cloak grew and grew until it covered many acres, and the king pleaded with her to stop. He agreed to donate adequate land, on which was built Brigid’s famous monastery at Kildare. The king later converted to Christianity.
For many years—pre-dating Christianity—a sacred fire that was kept by local priestesses had been burning in Kildare. Brigid continued this custom of keeping a fire alight (now representing the new light of Christianity) as she established what is considered the first monastery for women in Ireland. Incredibly, Brigid’s fire burned continuously into the 16th century! Brigid also founded a monastery for men around the same time. As a prototype for women of leadership in the faith, “Brigid held a unique position in the Irish Church and in the society of her day. As Abbess, she presided over the local Church of Kildare and was leader of a double monastery for men and women” (The Brigidine Sisters).
Brigid died on February 1st, 525 A.D., which we celebrate now as her feast day. Brigid’s Day is associated with many customs in Ireland and throughout the world, including candle-lit pilgrimages and the weaving of Brigid’s Crosses (instructions on how to make your own Brigid’s Cross here). Brigid’s feast day aligns with Imbolc, the ancient pagan festival marking the beginnings of the return of spring – another example of her legacy bridging the gap between the old world and the new.
Brigid is remembered today as a woman of contemplation and action, devoted to serving others and bringing an end to strife and conflict. She is also held as a model for creative co-operation with God, and is a favored saint of many artists, musicians, and writers.
Brigid lived and died nearly 1500 years ago, yet I am confident that the example of her life has never been more relevant. Just like Brigid’s time, this century we live in calls for dynamic conflict resolution skills and creative community-building efforts. Like Brigid, we too must protect and care for the vulnerable among us. And for a Church seeking better ways to engage and accompany young people regarding discernment and faith, the model of a young woman and entrepreneurial leader like Brigid offers clear insight for how to engage and empower the next generation.
In October, Pope Francis canonized five “Blessed” men and women of the Church, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert “widely recognized as one of the greatest theologians of the 19th century.” Along with Cardinal Newman, four women were made saints, including three religious women and one laywoman.
When I first heard the news on the car radio, the name “Cardinal Newman” sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. I was also curious about who the women were – and why I hadn’t heard their names reported also! My passing interest grew into a promise to learn: 1. Where have I heard of John Henry Newman? and 2. Who were the four women canonized with him?
The first question was easiest to answer. In addition to his famous conversion and subsequent tenure as the vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church at Oxford University, John Henry Newman was a prolific writer. Newman’s essays and sermons even influenced the White Rose student group in Munich, which included Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were tried and executed after speaking out against the Nazi regime.
These clues helped – but when I stumbled upon Cardinal Newman’s Wikipedia page, the answer hit home. If you have ever visited a secular college campus in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom with a Catholic Student Center – the odds are good that the center will be called a “Newman Center,” “Newman Club,” or “Newman House.” Newman Centers “get their name and their role from the cardinal who died in 1890 and emphasized that Catholic students who attend public universities must be given a place to gather to support and encourage one another in their faith.”
This “Newman Connection” helped me understand why this saint is beloved in many English-speaking parts of the world – especially among students, young adults, and those of other Christian denominations. One mystery solved – four to go!
At first, I was totally unfamiliar with the four newest women saints. My lack of familiarity may owe partially to the fact that these women are from four very different, non-English speaking parts of the world: Brazil, India, Italy, and Switzerland. The three religious women were Blessed Dulce Lopes Pontes, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, and Blessed Josephine Vannini. The laywoman canonized was Blessed Marguerite Bays.
In the Holy Mass homily, Pope Francis said “[These three religious women]… show us that the consecrated life is a journey of love at the existential peripheries of the world. Saint Marguerite Bays, on the other hand, was a seamstress; she speaks to us of the power of simple prayer, enduring patience and silent self-giving.”
St. Marguerite Bays was a lay member of the Secular Franciscan Order in 19th Century Switzerland. Early in her life she dedicated herself to helping others, especially her parish, her family, and unemployed Swiss peasant farmers who were adversely affected by the mechanization of the of agricultural industry. Fittingly, one of the miracles attributed to Marguerite involved the case of a two-year-old who fell under the moving wheels of a tractor. “Her grandfather witnessed the accident unfolding and prayed to Marguerite... and the girl got up unharmed.” Marguerite experienced a miraculous healing in her own life from bowel cancer and lived to age 63. St. John Paul II beatified her in 1995.
St. Giuseppina Vannini is the first Roman woman to be canonized in over 400 years. Raised an orphan in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, she went on to found the Daughters of St. Camillus, after being rejected from the Daughters of Charity for poor health. She faced rejection and bureaucratic roadblocks to establishing her order, which now has 800 sisters working in 22 countries. Giuseppina was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1994.
St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan also founded a religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Family, with the mission of caring for poor families in India. A mystic, she was born Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan (“Theria” for Teresa of Avila). Pope John Paul II named Mariam as Venerable in 1999.
St. Dulce Lopes Pontes is well known in the Western Hemisphere, often referred to as “Brazil’s Mother Theresa,” due to her birth into an upper-middle class family and her subsequent devotion to the poor. She founded the first Catholic workers’ organization in the state of Bahia, and she also “launched several initiatives including a health clinic for impoverished workers, a school for working families, a hospital, an orphanage and numerous care centers for the elderly and disabled.” At the time of her death in 1992, Sister Dulce had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Pope Francis’ Holy Mass homily, he discussed the journey of faith as the way of those who cry out, walk and give thanks. This is a dynamic challenge, taken up by all five of our new saints – many who paired their rich mystic experiences with bold, resourceful action to affect change. St. Dulce Lopes Pontes, St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, St. Josephine Vannini, St. Marguerite Bays, and St. John Henry Newman certainly inspire me to do likewise.
My own faith journey has been greatly influenced by the Augustinians – a religious order of friars, joined by seculars and friends, who follow the Rule of St. Augustine. Simply put, Augustine’s Rule invites men and women to “be of one mind and heart on the way to God… [to be] travelers on pilgrimage together, wherein Christ is our constant companion, as well as our way and our goal.”
St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the best-known saints in the Catholic Church. Although he was born in the 4th Century, his writings—like Confessions and The City of God—continue to inspire spiritual seekers to this day. For his contributions in theology, Augustine is also considered a Doctor of the Church. Beyond these accolades, Augustine’s personal character and self-proclaimed “restlessness for God” have inspired numerous men and women to take up his search for truth. One of these people is St. Nicholas of Tolentine, whose feast we celebrated on September 10th.
Growing up in an Augustinian parish in Staten Island, NY, I knew there were at least a few saints from the Augustinian family, including: Augustine’s mother, St. Monica; St. Rita of Cascia; St. Thomas of Villanova (there’s a basketball-loving university named after him!); and St. Clare of Montefalco. I also knew of a church in the Bronx named St. Nicholas of Tolentine, but I must admit, I knew very little about him.
A few years after college, and after some time away from my family parish, I found myself in a state of constant restlessness and spiritual doubt. Desiring a change, I reconnected with my past by joining the Augustinian Volunteers, a year-long volunteer program in which I traveled across the country, lived in intentional community, and learned about the greater Augustinian family. This experience confirmed a special place in my heart for the Augustinian saints, and I have been pleased to learn more about this man Nicholas who “sought for God by means of a deep interior life… [and] the practical love of neighbor.”
According to a brief biography, Nicholas “was a simple priest and Augustinian friar who touched the lives of many.” Born to a poor family in Italy in the year 1245, Nicholas became an Augustinian friar at an early age (likely 16 or 18) after being inspired by another Augustinian preacher in his hometown.
The Augustinian history states Nicholas was “full of charity towards his brother Augustinians as well as towards the people to whom he ministered. He visited the sick and cared for the needy. He was a noted preacher of the Gospel. He gave special attention to those who had fallen away from the Church. People considered him a miracle worker.”
Nicholas fasted often and received visions during his lifetime, including that of angels repeating “to Tolentino,” where he moved and worked for the remainder of his life. In the tradition of Augustinian hospitality, Nicholas is said to have been over-generous in his duties feeding the poor at his monastery; so much so that his superiors asked him to hold back a bit.
Nicholas (like many medieval saints) is linked through legend to miraculous incidents involving food. Once after weakening himself through prayer and fasting, he had visions of The Blessed Virgin and St. Augustine imploring him to eat some bread marked with a cross and dipped in water. This bread immediately regenerated his strength, and he went on to give the same bread to the ill while invoking Mary – thus beginning the Augustinian custom of distributing Saint Nicholas Bread. Another legend, perhaps inspired by contemporary Franciscan values and love of animals, tells of Nicholas vowing not to eat meat the rest of his life. When served a roasted fowl, Nicholas prayed and the bird returned to life, flying away from the table.
Nicholas died on Sept. 30, 1305, and was canonized by Pope Eugene IV (also an Augustinian) in 1446. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized. At this ceremony, Nicholas was credited with about three hundred miracles.
St. Nicholas is typically depicted in the black Augustinian habit, often with embroidered stars or a sun emblazoned on his chest, which seems to point to the great quote from his inspiration, St. Augustine: “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
In these days in which so many of us are searching for answers, let us pause to remember a kind saint who encouraged patience and prayer as ways of knowing and being.
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The Feast of Pentecost occurs on the seventh Sunday following Easter Sunday. On this day, we commemorate the occasion of the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples of Jesus, marking them each with “tongues of flame,” and allowing them to speak and proclaim in different tongues, or languages.
To describe this moment in early Church history as a “tipping point” would be an understatement. Pentecost signifies a unique outpouring of God’s love and spirit upon those first men and women to follow Jesus Christ, empowering them to expand and carry His message of salvation to all nations. Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles depicts this anointing of the Holy Spirit, in such a way that has inspired numerous works of music, literature, and art – including some artwork appearing here at the Catholic Apostolate Center!
As I reflect on the mystery of Pentecost, and ponder what it could mean for us in this current day, I am drawn to these particular passages from today’s Scriptures:
Reading 1: ACTS 2:1-11
“And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.”
Have you ever been in a room that was particularly quiet – and then suddenly, for no discernable reason, your senses sharpened dramatically? When I read today about the “strong driving wind” filling the entire house where the disciples were, this sort of heightened awareness is what I imagine the disciples could have felt right before the Spirit arrived and the tongues of flame appeared.
Especially in this season following the Paschal mystery, I view this reading as an invitation to seek and contemplate God in the quiet places with an open heart to what may come.
Reading 2: 1 COR 12:3B-7, 12-13
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.”
At Pentecost, the flames parted and “came to rest on each one of them [disciples].” I find this so encouraging! This past Lent, we read about Moses and the burning bush, from which God calls out, “Moses! Moses! ...Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”
Now, at the historical moment of Pentecost, fire is actually sent and bestowed upon each follower. God is still a mystery, as is the Holy Spirit – but a mystery that comes to us and rests upon us. We should not be afraid to be humble like Moses (removing our sandals before God) while at the same time accepting with joy and utilizing with courage the gifts the Spirit may bestow to each of us, according to our unique natures.
Gospel: JN 14:15-16, 23B-26
"I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you."
This age of instant communication is hopeful and perplexing all at once. On the one hand, technological advances have made worldwide communication easier than ever – truly a remarkable gift! On the other hand, we have all experienced how shorthand communication styles can misconstrue intended messages and cause confusion or even lasting harm. To me, the promise of Pentecost speaks directly to these challenges. Through the Holy Spirit, we may learn to genuinely and faithfully connect with one another despite all of our perceived differences.
There is a definitive continuation of the Easter message contained in today’s Gospel when we are told of “The Advocate… who the Father will send in my name.” We are not alone, even though we live long after the age of Christ. Perhaps this is what is meant when He once said, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” or “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
I believe that the Holy Spirit does blow through the rooms of our houses and within our hearts, even today. And while we may not see with human eyes the flames and the dove from this narrative, I believe that we are all surrounded by people who possess the flame within and have allowed The Advocate to work through them – helping them to become little advocates, little flames, and little doves, living among us, bringing peace.
Two forces have particularly influenced my life. The first is my Catholic faith – given by my parents and nurtured by others as I grew. The second is my adulthood experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In wrestling with both of these forces (at times feeling like Jacob, who wrestled with God), I accidentally discovered a saint whose experiences reflected my own.
Saint Dymphna lived in Ireland during the seventh century, after the time of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid, and Saint Columba. Christianity was practiced by many – including Dymphna’s mother, who had her daughter secretly baptized. Dymphna’s father was a pagan king named Damon. Dymphna’s mother died when Dymphna was just 15 – throwing her father into a terrible grief.
Damon’s counselors advised him to remarry, and though they searched for another wife, they found none. They then advised Damon to marry his daughter, who reflected her mother’s great beauty. Initially repelled, Damon eventually agreed and proposed to his daughter. Under the guidance of her confessor priest, Saint Gerebran, Dymphna rejected her father’s proposal, and fled Ireland for Belgium. Tradition states that Dymphna then built a hospice in Geel for the sick and the poor, where she remained for some time.
Soon, Damon and his men traced Dymphna’s journey, and ascertained her whereabouts due to Dymphna’s use of foreign currency. Confronted by the mad king, Saint Gerebran rebuked his behavior, and Damon had his men kill the priest. Still hoping to win his daughter, Damon then pleaded kindly, offering wealth, prestige, and honor. Dymphna, steadfast in her vow of chastity, rejected the offer – and by her own father’s sword was beheaded.
Soon after Dymphna’s martyrdom, several “lunatics” spent the night in the countryside where Dymphna died, and woke up in the morning healed. This miraculous place became known throughout Europe: a church was eventually built in the 1300s, with a sanctuary expansion built to accommodate pilgrims seeking mental relief. Townspeople themselves even began taking them into their homes, a tradition that continues to this day.
Saint Dymphna entered my own life in a chance way seven years ago, near the onset of my OCD symptoms – which involved uncontrollable obsessions and time-consuming “checking” behaviors. Around this time, I discovered in my bedroom a prayer coin invoking Saint Dymphna. I do not recall where this coin came from – and I certainly had never heard of Dymphna before. But the prayer on the back captured me: “Oh St. Dymphna, Patroness of nervous and mental illnesses, grant that, through prayer, I may be pure in mind and soul.”
Fascinated by her story and her Irish identity, I began to read, learn, and ask in prayer for her help. This relationship deepened and developed into my own pilgrimage to St. Dymphna’s church in Geel – which was closed when I reached Belgium! Nevertheless, she has continued to inspire my journey from OCD sufferer to OCD advocate, and I am more convinced than ever that she is a great intercessor and resource in our current Age of Anxiety.
Below are some brief meditations on Dymphna’s continued influence on my life:
1. Dymphna kept faith even in grief. We all know how grief challenges our faith. Not only did Dymphna lose her mother, but she also had to tread the impossible tightrope of consoling her father while recognizing that his sickness was warping him. This must have torn at Dymphna’s heart. Yet even amidst suffering, she did not stop hoping in God’s providence. In my own life, losing my brother six years ago in an accident severely challenged my faith in God. During this time, I believe Saint Dymphna’s help guided me back to a place of trust and hope.
2. Dymphna chose the path of unknowing and vulnerability. By fleeing to Geel, Dymphna took a major-league risk and rejected the familiarity of her native land. Yes, she was momentarily safe from the king – but incredibly vulnerable as a foreigner and refugee. In many ways, staying home and appeasing her father would have been the “safe” choice.
OCD constantly tempts me with gaining “safety” at the cost of doing ridiculous compulsions. While it’s terrifying to reject what OCD wants me to do (“Think hard enough and you’ll have peace!”), I have to respond by saying, “I’m willing to be anxious and unknowing, so I can live a real life.” That Dymphna, Patroness of mental illness, was beheaded, indicates to me that I must abandon relying on my brain, and embrace God and that which I cannot see or “figure out.”
3. Dymphna perfected her own authority and freedom to choose. In standing up to Damon, Dymphna inspires all of us who face temptation and all who face oppression from those who misuse their power. Not only did Dymphna preserve her vows of chastity, but she also avoided another, potentially graver misstep – the acceptance of a false crown, that is, her mother’s rightful crown.
The choice to be independent is terrifying. The story of Dymphna, however, shows true independence is possible, through faith in God who desires our freedom from sin and from oppression. With God’s help we may learn to abandon the perceived “safety” of acquiescing to the soul-stealing machinations of tyrants (even the tyrants in your own mind), at which time the opportunity for freedom, originality, generosity, charity, and creativity arises.
Questions for Reflection: What false crowns have you been offered in your life? What powerful proposals have been extended at the cost of your authority and freedom to choose?