My daughter was named after her great-great aunt, whom we affectionately referred to as “Auntie Choot.” She was given this name by her 3-year-old nephew who thought she resembled a little chick or “chook,” but he couldn’t quite pronounce “chook” so for the next six decades or so, Edith Stephens was simply called Auntie Choot. She didn't mind.
Auntie Choot was a firecracker of a woman. Standing at a proud 4’ 11”, she told us stories of riding her horse to school as a young girl in the South Island of New Zealand. During one visit, I noticed she had a large bruise on her forehead. When I asked her what had happened, she laughed and said “It was so silly of me. I locked myself out of the house, so I went around to the back and climbed in the bathroom window. I slipped on the floor and banged my head.” At that time, she was 95 years old.
Her house was stuffed full of old paintings, furniture, and bits and pieces of china. I especially remember all the cups of tea. Auntie Choot, like most Kiwis, loved her tea and averaged a good 5 to 6 cups a day. Tea was always brewed and served from a teapot into a dainty cup and saucer.
“It tastes better in a beautiful cup,” she would say.
Like the tea, Auntie Choot always made a big deal of the little things. It was how she chose to respond to a difficult life. Her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she stayed with him through the good days and the bad days. Her only daughter married a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, and then died unexpectedly herself. Diagnosed with a heart condition, Auntie Choot had to sleep sitting up for the last 30 years of her life. No one could ever say she had an easy life. That’s what made her spirit so remarkable. She clung to her Catholic faith and to beauty as two sure signs of better things to come.
After she passed away at the age of 103, her possessions were divided among the family. My mother, who was like a second daughter to her, received quite a few items, including several sets of teacups and saucers. These were particularly special to us, since we knew they had been used by Auntie Choot herself.
As my own daughter grew up, I would occasionally take a couple of these teacups out and have a cuppa with her, telling her stories about her great-great aunt. Although they never met, I wanted my daughter to know all about the wonderful woman she was named after.
Time goes by and previous generations seem to slip further away. Yet God is good and he sometimes reminds us that we are not as separated as we might think. My daughter, now a young adult, recently finished a Master of Music degree, with a concentration in Music Composition. As the final requirement for her degree, she had to present an hour of original music, performed live in front of an audience. Accordingly, she spent weeks working on this recital.
She wrote the music, found the instrumentalists (a pianist, a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist), and practiced her own parts on the bass clarinet. She coordinated with a dance/choreographer major to perform a solo routine. She found two opera majors to sing the words to one song, and a videographer and an actress to produce a short film for another. She wrote the program notes for her recital, detailing how she had been inspired by the poetry of Shel Silverstein to produce music that told a story, that tried to move listeners beyond the incessantly noisy landscape of today. Finally, she asked her dad and me if we could organize a small reception following the recital, to thank all those who had helped her and give the audience a chance to talk to the performers. Of course, we agreed.
There was a full house the night of the recital, packed with some family and friends but mostly undergraduates from the university. I, like the rest of the audience, had not seen or heard any of the works before, just bits and pieces here and there as my daughter was practicing. The music began and it was simply a wonderful hour. We noticed especially that the 18 and 19-year-olds were not on their phones. They were listening intently, captivated by the dancing, drawn in by the passionate singing of the opera singers, watching the instrumentalists expertly whizzing through notes.
The final piece of the evening featured a short video. Imagine my surprise as the film unfolded, reminding the viewer of our need to seek beauty in everyday life. But the last scene of the film brought tears to my eyes. There, on the big screen, was one of Auntie Choot’s cup and saucers. The shot showed a long stream of hot tea being slowly poured into the cup. The actress raised the cup to her face, closed her eyes and drew in a long breath. Then she took a sip, smiled and turned her face to the sun as the screen faded to black.
At the reception afterwards, the young audience gathered around the artists, chatting and asking them questions. I was busy handing out food and drinks when I heard a young woman exclaim, “Look! The cup and saucer!”
Unbeknownst to me, my husband had seen Auntie Choot’s cup and saucer sitting on the table at home and had grabbed it at the last second, thinking it would add a nice touch to the table decor at the reception. The students gathered around it, looking at it as though it was a rare, precious thing.
My mother, standing nearby, noticed, and said, “Auntie Choot would be so happy. Beauty was always her path to seeing God. These things were so important to her, and now all of these young people can share that, too.”
My daughter wandered over. “Edie!” I said. “You used one of Auntie Choot’s teacups!”
She looked at me with surprise and said, “Of course, Mom. Everything tastes better in a beautiful cup.”
If we read each of these verses slowly, one at a time, it's easy to come to one conclusion - it’s hard to be truly loving. In fact, the love described here pretty much goes against most of our natural inclinations. Trying to live this type of radical, other-centered love can be overwhelming and intimidating, if not just impossible. That’s where St. Valentine’s Day celebrations can come to our help.
Before February 14 arrives, take a few moments to think about the people around you, especially those whom you love. What is one, small thing you can do or say to show them your love? Dr. Gary Chapman’s well-known book The Five Love Languages can be a great guide in pointing out the best way to turn love into some visible form, and not necessarily just through buying something. His five languages of Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch can help us focus on others, considering what they need, and how to serve them best. After spending a bit of time thinking about our relationships with others, we may also realize that before we can offer a gesture of love, we first need to offer an apology and repair some hurt that was done. His sequel, The Five Languages of Apology, written with Dr. Jennifer Thomas, can also provide guidance, detailing five different ways to apologize and reconnect through Expressing Regret, Accepting Responsibility, Making Restitution, Genuinely Repenting or Requesting Forgiveness. Using these two books together reminds us how closely love and reconciliation are connected.
If we take the many visible cues of love we see all around us right now, all those hearts and angels, as a gentle invitation to love instead of a reason to be cynical or selfish, we can begin to form the habit of seeing love as an opportunity to be other-focused, to consider the needs of others over ourselves, to get a little closer to the high standard of love described in scripture. Holding St. Valentine’s Day in this perspective prepares us for something else, as well. Just a week after February 14, the holy season of Lent begins. During those 40 days, we will walk with Jesus, Love made visible, to the cross, where he will offer his life in the supreme act of self-giving sacrifice. By already contemplating love and reconciliation on St. Valentine’s Day, we can be primed for this journey, and perhaps able to enter into it more deeply. If possible this year, don’t brush off St. Valentine’s Day as just another money grab, but enter into it with a spirit of docility, responding to the soft call of the Good Shepherd to contemplate Love, and prepare ourselves to walk with Him.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a parishioner after Mass, outside of church. We had been talking for a while, and just about everyone had already left. As I said goodbye to my friend and walked back towards my office inside the Parish Center, I noticed an older gentleman, probably in his early 80’s, waving his hand at me to get my attention.
I waited a few moments, as he caught up to me. After asking me a question about an upcoming parish event, he mentioned that he planned to attend, but that he would be alone. His eyes got a little misty and he said that all of his children, and now, also, his wife, had fallen away from the church. “They’re good, decent people,” he said, “but they just don’t believe anymore.”
The question of belief had been on my mind lately, so I was able to tell him that in my close to 20 years of parish ministry, I have seen quite a few conversions or re-versions to Catholicism. While each person and his or her journey was unique, there was one thing they all had in common. In every instance, there was always someone, somewhere, who was praying for them. Always. Every single time. Without exception.
I reassured my older friend that he was doing exactly what he needed to do for his loved ones, lifting them up in prayer to God, even if he struggled to think it was making any difference, even if it seemed like all his efforts were going unheard and unanswered.
The truth is we don’t know how the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of the people we pray for, and sometimes we may go for a long period of time not seeing any change, having to have faith that God is working somehow, someway. But it’s also true that if we can persevere long enough, God will answer our prayers in some way, simply out of love and concern for the pray-er if nothing else, loving and responding to both the pray-er and the prayee.
A couple of weeks from now, we will celebrate the Week Of Prayer for Christian Unity. First observed in 1908, the Octave of Christian Unity runs between the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair on January 18 and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, on January 25. The Octave, so called because of its 8 days, was begun by Epispocal minister, Fr. Paul Watson, as a small, local attempt to pray for reconciliation between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. In 1916, after Fr. Paul and co-founder St. Lurana White became Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XV extended its observance to the universal church. As the decades have rolled by, this week has grown in stature and is now joined by all Christians who wish to echo and pray for the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer to his Father, “that all may be one.”
It was the closeness of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, combined with the conversation with my older friend that led me to reflect once again on the question of belief. What do we, as Catholics, believe? What, in a nutshell, are our non-negotiable beliefs, especially those beliefs we share with most other Christians? The answer is already given to us in the Apostles Creed.
With this in mind, I created a simple Rosary Novena called Believe. This novena takes each of the “I Believe” professions we say in the Apostles Creed as a daily meditation and ends with the prayer taught by the Angel of Peace to the children in Fatima. I hope this novena will help in praying for healing between different denominations. I hope it will add to the prayers and works offered during the Week of Christian Unity. Most especially, I hope it will help my church friend and all those like him, who are remaining faithful in prayer, persistently asking God to bring their loved ones back into the fold.
Hallmark Gold Crown stores have been a recurring theme in my life. When I was a senior in high school, I took a part-time job in the Hallmark store in the mall. I worked there until I left for college in the fall, and it was my first experience of working in retail. I enjoyed the customers and got along well with my co-workers, but it was the actual products in the store that most captivated my imagination.
Years later, I again went back to work at another Hallmark store part-time. I thought I would be there just a few months, helping during the Christmas season. I ended up staying for almost nine years. Once again, it was the people and the products that inspired me to stay.
Working at these two gift shops gave me a first-hand glimpse into the creative process. Although both stores were under the Hallmark umbrella, we carried creations from many other companies as well. As I unpacked and set up the displays for all these products, I couldn’t help but notice the artistry and collaboration involved in every item, whether it was a wall hanging, a card or a Christmas ornament. In each of these examples, someone had an original idea, an idea that communicated and said something. This idea was sketched out roughly in words or drawings, before undergoing a long process, moving through different hands and steps before it finally achieved its completed state and arrived in the store, ready to speak to the customers.
Somewhere along the way during these years of working retail, I began to connect this process of artistic creation on a small level to the great process of creation God undertakes with each of us, as He forms and molds us in the different experiences and circumstances of our lives, helping us become the idea He had in mind at our creation.
As Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece. (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists)
Crafting our lives as a whole is a daunting task. Usually, I’m happy if I can try to make something out of each day, to do my best to respond in the present moment, going small and specific instead of big and expansive.
In fact, it was through noticing the small and specific items in the Hallmark stores, especially the annual collection of Hallmark Christmas ornaments, that inspired me to start contemplating them more deeply and writing about them. As Catholics, we know that almost anything, properly used, can be turned to the service of God. Why not Christmas ornaments as well?
This year, Hallmark came out with a 3D perpetual Advent count-down calendar. The calendar has a space above it to place an ornament for display. This gave me the idea of creating an Advent calendar of Christmas ornaments, of looking at some of these creations in the light of Advent, leading us into the Incarnation.
This is a new idea, not one that I have completed already. Will I be successful in writing for 25 days this Advent? Who knows! But I’ll give it a try and see what happens. Now, just to be clear, I am not advocating that anyone rush out to buy more Christmas ornaments, Hallmark or otherwise. Instead, my hope is that by training ourselves to look at the items around us with a discerning eye, especially those items produced through using God-given artistic talents, we can use that same habit of discernment to see where God is working in our lives. If you’d like to follow along, you can start by reading my reflection for Advent Day 1: Jack Skellington in the Arms of an Angel.
This Advent let’s take a closer look at the items around us. Let’s try to view them through the eyes of an artist, the eyes of a creator. Hopefully, this will help us to see the child in the manger a little more clearly, the one who came to give us the ability to be co-creators of the Kingdom of God.
With all that’s going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Frequently, we may even feel not only overwhelmed, but also powerless and unheard; powerless to affect real change and just one small voice among so many louder, more strident and better-funded voices.
But being small and unheard has never stopped Catholic women! In fact, over 100 years ago a group of strong, determined Catholic women came together to form an alliance, to support each other in responding to the needs of their local communities, to grow in faith, and to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church. That alliance is still in existence today. It’s called the National Council of Catholic Women, or the NCCW.
Founded in 1920 at the invitation of the U.S. bishops, the NCCW was formed for three reasons. First, this organization would give a unified voice to all Catholic women in the United States, especially around issues of national importance as well as contemporary issues within the church. Secondly, a large, unified, national group would ensure that other national organizations would be more likely to recognize our Catholic values and principles. Finally, uniting the many individual women’s groups and organizations throughout the country would maximize and strengthen the impact of all the good works already being done, in parishes and counties throughout the U.S.
As the Council grew and evolved over the years, programs and affiliations were developed. Today, the council is especially recognized for its Domestic Violence program, as well as the Leadership Development Training program, which equips women in growing into the leaders that are needed today. NCCW members also participate in the “Walking with Moms” project to support mothers and their children in unexpected pregnancies, as well as the “Friends with Pens” Prison Pen Pal project, just to name a few. Additional service projects are chosen each year by each individual council, so that we can help in our own communities as well.
On the international stage, the NCCW is a member of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO), giving us an opportunity to listen to the voices of Catholic women all over the world, especially through WUCWO initiatives like the World Women’s Observatory, representing women who “have no voice” and “are not seen.” I myself was able to attend a national conference of the NCCW a few years ago, and it was a rare treat to be able to listen to the WUCWO representatives from around the world, as they gave their reports and shared both the progress and obstacles in their countries.
Besides being members in WUCWO, the NCCW also partners with other international Catholic organizations to support their work. Projects like Catholic Relief Services’ “Water for Life” and Cross Catholic’s “Box of Joy” projects have long been supported by NCCW members.
The goal of the NCCW is the same today as it was at its founding over 100 years ago, to enrich and evangelize the lives of its members through Christian works and to extend the love of Christ to our brothers and sisters, by responding “with Gospel values to the needs of the Church and society in the modern world.” The council does this through the three commissions of Spirituality, Service and Leadership.
One thing I enjoy most about attending our meetings is the chance to meet women who may be in a different generation than I am. Since we are in different stages of life, whether older or younger, our schedules and activities don’t usually mesh. Our meetings give us the chance to get to know each other and form a parish-wide network of support and solidarity. Additionally, it’s wonderful to even branch out beyond your own parish and meet other engaged women in your city or diocese, who are passionate about the same things you are.
As we all ramp up again, post Covid (more-or-less), there’s never been a better time to join your local chapter of the NCCW. Membership is open to all Catholic women, and members can enroll as young as eighth grade. Memberships are available through an affiliation, such as a women’s group who is, or would like to be, associated with the National Council, or through individual memberships, for women who want to participate but don’t have an affiliated women’s group locally. However, that’s the perfect time to start one! Find out if there’s a chapter of the NCCW at your parish or diocese and join the thousands of women across the U.S. in being the unified voice of Catholic women.
You must not set yourself up as a judge. That is God's right alone. Your only mission is to be an angel of peace.
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