Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Embarking on your Faith Journey

Have any of you ever read a really great book or watched a really great movie or heard a really great story? Now, what did that book, movie or story have that was so great about it? Maybe it had to do with some mythical place, or an incredibly interesting main character. Perhaps you were able to identify with it in some way. Something about that story drew you in. And I can tell you, that each of these stories has something very simple in common. They all have some sort of journey that you as the reader, watcher, or listener follow. It may be a journey to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Narnia, Metropolis or Gotham. It might be a journey of self-discovery, or one where the main character saves the world. We are drawn into this story. We are drawn into the mystery.

 I have this map up here. It belongs to my Dad, and it had a prominent place in my home for most of my life. It’s a hand drawn map of Middle Earth, the world that J.R.R. Tolkien created for his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. I grew up staring at it, memorizing the landmarks and physical obstacles along the way from the Shire to Mount Doom in Mordor. This is one of the stories that I was enamored with as a child. I loved the idea of the adventures that took place in Middle Earth. I wanted to meet characters like Bilbo and Gandalf, and I wanted to be a strong heroin just like Arwen.
Now, what if I told you that our faith can be just like one of these journeys. Just like the ones that we see in our favorite books, movies, or stories. 
 You might be thinking I’m a little crazy at this point. But, one of my favorite saints, St. John Paul II is quoted in saying, “Life with Christ is a Wonderful Adventure”.  
There is a moment in every story where the main character is posed with a question. Usually that question is whether or not to take on an adventure. Whether they’re off to destroy a ring, find a horcrux, or save the city from eternal doom, there is a moment when the main character consciously makes the choice to do the right thing. And often enough, we learn that the main character was destined to take part in that journey. So are we.

This painting is one of my favorites. It’s called “The Calling of St. Matthew” and it was painted by a guy named Caravaggio in 1600. Here we can see a ray of light making its way to Matthew, while Christ is pointing at him. The story of this painting actually comes from a story in the Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew tells us:

 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew- sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” - Matthew 9:9-13

We all have this moment. There is a moment where we are asked to join Christ on a journey. We are asked to accompany him on an adventure that we were made for.
My faith journey started out like many others. It was quiet. I grew up on Long Island, went to public school, lived with my Grandma, Mom & Dad, big sister Julie, and went to Mass on Sundays. I played with neighbors as a kid, and loved to draw and write stories. For me, this moment of encounter didn’t happen as a child, at my baptism, first communion, or confirmation, but rather, it happened on a retreat, kind of like the one you’re on right now. I had had a couple of really rough years in high school. I was anxious, depressed, I had lost friends, and a boyfriend who I was too dependent on, and my Dad had moved out and my parents divorced. I was a senior in High School. I wasn’t living a life for Christ, even though I had gone to Church, to youth group, and volunteered my time to the poor and to the younger children at my parish. I was living day to day, trying to fake a smile, and act as though everything was okay. I knew that I wasn’t though. I knew that I was loved, but couldn’t grasp what that meant, or how it could affect my life.
            And so I went on this retreat. I didn’t particularly like going to youth group anymore, but out of habit, I went on the Spring Retreat. Ironically, or not so ironically, the theme of the retreat was “I will Follow” and we had to sing this awful song and do silly hand movements to it. However, I knew that being a scutch and remaining closed off was not going to be fun for anyone. So, I tried to be open and listen to all of the presentations and participate in the prayer services. Friday night we handed whatever was burdening us over to God by tossing a rock into the Long Island Sound. We were asked to quiet ourselves, and to think of what was burdening us. There were thousands of pebbles on the beach. We each picked up two rocks. One represented our burdens, and one represented a promise. We each threw our burden into the Sound, and held on tight to our promise. I began to open up then. But the true turning point for me was on Saturday night. I sat in adoration of the Eucharist, which is when the Eucharist is exposed in a gold stand called a monstrance for a prolonged period of time. I desired mercy; just like St. Matthew. I had experienced God’s loving grace in the sacrament of confession. And as I sat, for the first time feeling peace in front of the Eucharist, I cried, and felt a whisper in my heart to come, and follow Him.  I felt an overwhelming sense in my heart that I was loved. Truly Loved. In that moment, just like St. Matthew, I got up, and followed Him. I was drawn into the mystery.
 I found Joy on that retreat. For the first time in a long time, I found joy in doing simple everyday things. I even found Joy in getting stuck in the mud of a small Long Island Harbor, after running after my friends onto what looked like solid ground. In case you were wondering, I did ruin my flip flops that day. I had no idea what this journey would entail or what my destination would be. To be completely honest with you, I still don’t know what the destination is. I can tell you, that since I decided to get up and follow Him, my life has truly been an adventure. I’ve gone places, done things, and encountered people that I wouldn’t have even thought possible in High School. But, I had to take that first step and climb that very high mountain. I had to leave my comfortable life behind, and like Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, I left the Shire.

I started to take my volunteer work seriously. I was a volunteer with the Middle School Youth Group at my Parish. I played silly games along the way with middle schoolers and enjoyed it. I even let a 12 year old do my hair with shaving cream for the “Edge Kids Take Over”. It took a few showers to get it all out. I went on trips to places I had only dreamed about before. I walked the streets of Dublin and Paris with my Mom and sister. 

I took in the beauty of one of the world’s oldest book of Gospels, The Book of Kells, in Dublin, and I stood in awe of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I went on pilgrimage to Madrid, Spain for World Youth Day 2011. I walked along the same cobblestone streets as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. I sat in the same churches as a Doctor of the Church. As a group, we went to Mass with various English-Speaking Cardinals, and eventually with Pope Benedict XVI. 

 We stood and humbly waited in the rain, which was described as a hurricane over the announcer. There was obviously a mistranslation there. And we waited for the Pope to arrive. We met young Catholics from all over the world: Colombia, France, Iraq, Australia, Nigeria, and Malaysia. I found I had a friend in Jesus’s mother after I realized that each church I went into had the image that my Parish is named after, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This still happens by the way.
            In college, I continued to follow Him along a path that I couldn’t quite see, and had some incredible experiences. I trudged through Washington DC in 10 degree weather as a witness to the beauty that Human Life is at the March for Life. 

 I studied in Galway, Ireland, after working up the courage to follow the desires of my heart and change my major from something that would secure me a job after graduation, to something that I truly loved: English Literature and Irish Studies. 

 I sat in the middle of a country road in a town where there were more sheep than people, and appreciated the beauty of creation with a sunrise at 4am with some of my wonderful classmates. 

 I took a bus and visited relatives that I had never met and shared in faith and tea and ice cream with them. We drove all over my Grandfathers hometown.  I felt a little silly standing with that tomb stone in the rain, but I knew that these were the family members that gave me my Catholic faith, this was the church where my grandparents and great grandparents worshipped a God who is Love, and so I complied and smiled as a cousin I barely knew took my picture.  

I walked across the Peace Bridge in a city where violence was the norm for so long. I shared in the hurt that my cousins felt from the past, but also listened to their hope for their city and for their home. I quite literally crossed the River Foyle with them and was present as they shared their story and their heart with me.
I traveled in a minivan, and my campus minister was pulled over by cop in West Virginia for going 83 mph, to a place that I had never been. There were mountains there. I served the poor of Appalachia in Beauty, KY with some of the most kind-hearted, loving people I know. 

 The Lord helped me break out of my comfort zone by working with power tools and to truly be present with the people of Beauty. I was reminded by a cook that I met from Georgia, just how beautiful my soul was, and how she could see it in my eyes. I spoke of my love for Mother Teresa and the Catholic Faith with a nurse from the next town after she confided in me just how beautiful she found the Catholic Church, even though she was a Baptist. She met me with love, not judgment, just as Jesus had. 

 I built a deck and a ramp that week along with 8 of my classmates and mentors. That is something I would have never thought I could do, much less that I would want to. My Dad still doesn’t quite believe it.  Even in the mud that week, I found Joy.

More recently, Jesus asked me to climb an even higher mountain. He asked me to serve in a way that I had never thought before. He asked me to move away from home to a place called Garrison, and to run retreats where students could encounter Him. I laughed, but after much prayer and a leap of faith, I went. And I could not be happier. Those words that JPII spoke are true, “Life with Christ is a wonderful adventure.” 

Will you get up and follow him?

This presentation was given to the Sophomores from various Catholic High Schools in our area through CYFM's Sophomore Retreat: The Faith Journey. This presentation was given by Mary. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Acts 29

This past Sunday we heard from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 5. Actually, the Easter season is when we hear from Acts of the Apostles each week. Acts of the Apostles is the account of the Apostles and their mission after the resurrection of Christ. In this book we hear the accounts of the martyrs, we hear Saul persecuting Christians, and we hear about the lives of the earliest Christians. 

It's a book that many people read as they start, say, a year of service. I can remember at the beginning of the year, Sam saying that her favorite chapter of Acts of the Apostles was chapter 29. I can remember sitting there and not thinking anything of it until one of the teens tried to find Acts 29 in the Bible. And guess what... it wasn't there. It literally doesn't exist. Acts of the Apostles ends at chapter 28. My mind was blown, because in that moment I realized that Acts 29 is the life of the modern day Christian, ie you and me. 

This little insight from Sam gave me a new appreciation for the Acts of the Apostles and for what we are doing this year. We are trying to live out this faith. So in turn, our chapter is still being written. We are Acts 29. 

In the lines following this weekends first reading, we learn that although the Apostles have been persecuted for preaching the Gospel, they continue to teach and proclaim the Gospel message that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

How can you and I live out this principle this week? To preach the Gospel always, with our words, with our actions, with our lives, even when it becomes difficult. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Divine Mercy

This past Sunday, was the Second Sunday of Easter, more commonly known as Divine Mercy Sunday. The Church calls us to reflect on God's unfailing Mercy, his Divine Mercy. You may be familiar with this image:

Growing up, this image was in one of the side chapels at my parish. I never knew what it was or what it meant until I was a senior in High School and was introduced to the Divine Mercy chaplet and St. Faustina. This image was revealed to St. Faustina, a humble nun in the Convent of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Poland. The message of mercy is simple, the Divine Mercy website states:
The message of The Divine Mercy is simple. It is that God loves us – all of us. And, he wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Thus, all will come to share His joy.  
What an incredible message? It's so simple, yet so profound, and looking back I can see why God chose to reveal it to the world. It's because our world so desperately needs it.

Pope Francis also recognizes this need, as he declared this year the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Anyone who has been to CYFM this year has been exposed to it in some way, as we have incorporated it into our programming. And what we have realized is how vital this message is to the Church and to our Ministry.

And so, this week, let us revel in God's love and his Divine Mercy. Let us always be reminded that he wants us to share in His joy this Easter season.

Jesus, I trust in you.

with love and gratitude,

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Easter Season

This past Sunday, the Church celebrated Easter! The Church is now in the season of Easter, and we are allowed to say the "A" word again! For the past forty days, we entered into the desert with Jesus. We have died with him on Good Friday, and rose with him on Easter Sunday.

How was your Lent? Was it fruitful? Did you take any of the suggestions that we put out on Ash Wednesday? How did you grow with the Lord? What are some of the things that you did during Lent that you would like to carry over into regular life? Maybe you set up a new prayer routine, or started volunteering in a new way. Lent is supposed to help us to become better Christians so that we can rise with Christ. 

Easter is the reason why we as Christians strive to live the way that we do. Check out the Resurrection accounts in each of the Gospels. Take some time and pray with these beautiful readings from scripture:

Personally, my favorite account is from Luke. It's commonly referred to as "The Road to Emmaus," where two Disciples encounter the Risen Christ along the way. 

In this Gospel passage we hear about the two apostles who are walking away from Jerusalem to a place called Emmaus, about seven miles away. Mind you, this is right after the crucifixion. They don't know that Jesus has risen. The disciples are distraught, full of doubt and anger, and still Jesus comes into their midst. And the part of this Gospel that gets to me is that those two disciples have no idea that Jesus is the one who is walking with them. There have been so many times in my life where I have been distraught and did not feel Jesus with me. The Disciples go on this whole journey with a stranger who is bringing them comfort and friendship. It is only when he breaks bread that their eyes are opened, and they realize that it is Christ who has been with them all along. 

And what do they do when they realize they have encountered the risen Christ? They run back to Jerusalem to tell the others. 

"So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread."

The two Disciples were so filled with Joy when they returned to Jerusalem! That is how we as Christians today should be. We should be filled with Joy because we are the Easter people, as John Paul tells us. We have encountered the risen Christ and we are called to go back to Jerusalem, to spread this message of love with our lives. 

with love and gratitude,

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pizza and Praise

This past Friday, some members of the CYFM community celebrated National Catholic Sisters Week with the The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary are a Roman Catholic Religious Congregation of Women who "carry out our mission of love and service through our many ministries with God’s people, especially poor women and children." 

The Sisters have a very interesting story that many don't know about:
"The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary were founded in Ireland in 1775 by Nano Nagle. She felt she was called by God to bring the light of faith to the poor children of Cork.  The Penal Laws of the time forbade any form of Catholic instruction in Ireland, but Nano Nagle was willing to risk imprisonment and disgrace for the sake of the Gospel. Visiting the sick and homebound by night along Cork’s cobbled streets, she became known as the “Lady With the Lantern”. In time she gathered other women to form a new society of women religious dedicated to the service of the poor. Nano Nagle’s small band of women, originally named the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, later became known as the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
As many of you know, Sr. Mary and Sr. Mary Catherine are members of this community. So when CYFM was asked to partner in an event, we jumped at the opportunity! The event included Praise, Worship, and Adoration as well as Pizza and fellowship with the Sisters.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

It's Who I Am

Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Graymoor, at dusk.
Lately, I've been reflecting on that song by Chris Tomlin, "Good, good Father". It's a fairly popular song among Catholic and Christian circles right now. I first heard it at Catholic Underground in September, and it has been stalking me ever since. Since I'm doing a year of service, I see a spiritual director about once a month. And as we were talking about my past, and my struggle with a consistent prayer life, my love of this song came up. He asked me to reflect on this song and why it resonates with me.
As I've reflected, and listened, and prayed, I've realized something. And to be completely honest with you, I think it's because I have a hard time truly believing the lyrics. But I'm a sucker for repetitive prayer, this is something else I have learned about myself from SD. It makes me actually think about what I'm praying (taize or praise and worship), or think about what I'm meditating on (the rosary). This song is very repetitive and that's a big part of why I find myself wanting to sing it over and over again.
The chorus reads:
You're a good, good father, it's who you are, it's who you are. And I am loved by you, it's who I am, it's who I am. God, you are perfect in all of your ways. Because you're a good, good father.
Now you may be asking yourself, but Mary these are basic Christian principles. You know, God so loved us (John 3:16). Why is this hard for you to believe?
Well, dear reader. Think about how radical this Love is!
I had a wonderful experience at DDA, or Day by Day Agape, (a student led encounter retreat that CYFM runs). One of the things that I realized about my relationship with God is that I am often reluctant to accept God's love and the love of others. Often enough. I'd rather remain closed off. I would rather be completely independent.
And I am loved by you. It's who I am, it's who i am. You're a good good father.
But we are so loved by Him.
Often enough, I am reminded of how the world sees Love. And I begin to believe it. That I can't be loved. That no one can truly love me that much. That love is based on merit. That it can't be unconditional because we live in a broken world.
but He is Love, and this has become my prayer.
I recently finished reading Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ. In the last chapter he reflects on that song "O' Holy Night". Everyone has heard it. It's a Christmas classic. Fr. Greg reflects on this phrase:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
Fr. Greg talks a lot about how once the homies (the gang members he works with) realize their worth, they turn their lives around. Now, I won't spoil the book for you, because you need to go out and read it because it's incredible, but this part resonated with me. Just like the Chris Tomlin song.
He is love. He loves us with a perfect love. Even if it's hard to comprehend in such a broken world. He appears and the soul feels its worth.
As we move to the end of the liturgical year, it is darker, and we become more aware of the new beginning that will be here this upcoming Sunday. Advent begins. It's easy to commit to something for 30 days. So, will you commit to deepening your faith? I am. It's kind of like homework because my SD will expect to talk about it in December when we meet. But, it's good homework. And I'll be sure to try because I'm being held accountable.
I've already started in a way. I've reflected on this song. I've read a wonderful spiritual book. And I've been trying to read the gospel of the day and do an examen with The Jesuit Prayer App, which I love. (It reminds me to pray twice a day!) It's funny how God works because each day, the examen opens with this prayer:
God, I believe that at this moment I am in your presence and you are loving me.
And I am loved by you, it's who I am, it's who I am.

with love and gratitude,

*this post originally appeared on the blog a lovely little flower on November 25, 2015*

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Reflection on College COP

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
-Albert Schweitzer

I used the quote above to begin my talk on this past College Capuchin Outreach Program (College COP) in January. I used it because it rings true for me, some of the best and happiest moments of my life were spent serving others. I learned what true joy was through service, and through that new-found understanding of joy I was able to learn more about God and deepen my relationship with Jesus, the ideal model for servant leadership.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend College COP last year as a participant, which was a really awesome experience itself, so leading as a CCV this year was like coming full circle. Last year my service site was St. Patrick’s Soup Kitchen and Newburgh Ministries. I really loved working with both organizations; I got to meet some genuine and inspiring people who are really passionate about their work and service. I was also privileged to have a fantastic team to serve with throughout the week which shared many great conversations and countless laughs. (Shout out to Kelley, Kim, and Shawna!) Through theological reflection in the evenings I got to unpack the day’s experiences; both my own and others’ through the lens of faith. I was able to recognize God in the people I encountered throughout the week, from the people I served, to the people I served with, and everyone on the retreat. Through attending CCOP I was able to grow in both my understanding of service and in my faith.
I expected this year’s College COP to be pretty similar to last year’s with the obvious exception that this time I would have the added responsibilities of helping run the retreat and lead a service group. However, this year I was challenged in ways that I never expected to be challenged. And in that sense I was also forced to grow.
My service site this year was Habitat for Humanity/ manual labor, which originally I was less than thrilled about. I must admit I didn’t want to do Habitat for a very selfish reason… I didn’t want to be out in the cold all week. But what is that saying about God laughing at your plans…? Also I know that often times I struggle finding God in the day during manual labor.  It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the repetition and monotony of the mostly physical work that I find myself not being present to God throughout the day. Anyway for the first two days of CCOP we worked at the Red House, the place where my community and I live together, our home. It was a definitely humbling experience! It was humbling because I was leading a group of college students who were going to be serving me (& my community and CYFM of course), and also because I was there to work and serve with them. Working in the Red House made me appreciate the work I was doing more and also appreciate our house more, even with all its cracks, drafty windows, that sticky and stained floor in the kitchen, and all its imperfections. It is a good house, full of friendship, laughter, and memories. My last day working at the Red House, I looked back to see a warm streak of sunlight coming in from the window illuminating the floor and freshly painted green walls in the chapel. I stood in the doorway and relished in the simple beauty of that moment, and I thought about all of the prayers that have been said in that chapel over the years. Prayers of our community and of past CCV’s. I thought about the all the prayers said in the mornings before work, at evening prayer before bed, and late into the night by restless souls. Prayers for all the teens and retreatants that have been ministered to throughout the years, prayers for discernment, for joy, courage, hope, and peace.  All those prayers were sure to fill up that little chapel.

Then the next two days were spent working with the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Newburgh. That was also a challenging a humbling experience. I had worked with Habitat many time before, so I thought I knew what to expect. We arrived at the address we were given and found a house that was in complete disrepair. It was covered in filth. I felt dirty just standing there. At first I didn’t know what to think, I couldn’t even move, I was in shock by what I saw in front of my eyes. My next thoughts were of wanting to get out and run away from that place, but still I stayed, and as a group we slowly made countless trips in and out of the house clearing out dirt, trash, soiled clothes and furniture, broken drywall, and much more. As we kept working my thoughts turned to ones of questioning where God was in this situation. Where was God for the children who apparently lived in this house? Where was God among all the debris, mold, and stench? That answer didn’t come to me right away. When someone asked me in Theological Reflection where God was in all of that, I mumbled about God being in the hope that now Habitat is going to rehab the house for another well deserving family. Which is true, but what I realized later after much reflection with people much wiser and spiritually adept than I, that God was there. God was there in the people I was working with all week long, my service group and the Habitat workers, in their willingness to see hope and envision a better house and better life for another family. God was there in the midst of the filth, brokenness, and desolation that was that house, and even in the people who allowed that house to sink into such disrepair because God never abandons us. Even in our brokenness, even in our sin, and even in our shame, God never leaves us. He loves us through it all, and he forgives us. He wipes away all the filth and crud from our souls and washes them clean in the sacrament of Reconciliation. So God was in that house in Newburgh in the same way he was there in that small chapel in the Red House with the light streaming through the window.

So yes, College COP was just as great an experience for me this year as it was last year. This year I was put out of my comfort zone. This year I was challenged. This year I had to seek out where God was in my service, more so than last year. And I found Him.

This post was written by Amanda Bielat.