Retro-Post: Sr. Blanche's Desk

This week I’m re-posting one of my first and favorite blog posts. It’s been off my site for several years as I wanted to make a few edits, and then I just never got around to re-posting it. Some of you may have read it in That Mighty Heart.

My first ministry position was as a parish DRE in Clinton, Maryland. I was 23 when I started, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. This essay is about my office at the parish, which I inherited from the matchless Sister Blanche Twigg, MHSH. The bookcases of Sr. Blanche’s office were lined with Little Rock Scripture Studies and Catechist Magazines, two publications I never dreamed that I would someday write for. What a beginning I had there, with co-workers who mentored me and parishioners who accepted me. What a place that was to be, sitting at Sr. Blanche’s desk!

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Sr. Blanche’s Desk

I will never forget my first “real” job interview. Fresh out of graduate school, I was applying for a parish position as a Director of Religious Education. I was 23 years old. 

The interview was by all accounts fairly average until I asked the pastor why the former D.R.E. left the position. He looked happy and sad, amused and wistful, all at the same time. “Sister Blanche served here for 25 years,” he told me. “She was 82 years old. She has gone to be with the Lord.” Later I would discover that Fr. Tom’s emotion was the result of a long and solid friendship with this formidable religious sister. Twenty years his elder, she called him “Tom” in a mother’s tone and ran the show as she liked. And she liked a tight ship.

In the coming months, I would hear many legends about Sr. Blanche – how every morning she “pointed” her car in the direction of the parish and drove to work; how no one could say no to her; how children obeyed her and parents feared her; how she was a force to be reckoned with; how much they loved her. Sr. Blanche was a gifted educator, a respected Scripture scholar, a master recruiter, a thrifty manager, a green thumb, a tough cookie, a trusted friend, a spiritual guide, a miracle worker.

My first day on the job, I walked into Sr. Blanche’s office. Her plants had been cared for, her books arranged neatly. I sat down at Sr. Blanche’s desk. It felt large and unfamiliar. Unsure what to do next, I opened the top drawer. I looked at all the things Sr. Blanche had left behind – things she had used so many times, things she kept at the ready. Who was I to clean out this desk? With whispered apologies to my predecessor, I began to pick up the items inside, one by one, trash can at the ready. But I couldn’t throw away much more than a few brittle rubber bands. Many of the items were unidentifiable or just really old. In her eyes, they might have a use someday. Who was I to decide they wouldn’t? 

This was my first encounter with Sr. Blanche. And in my own way, I encountered her many more times in the coming years. I was the opposite of this great lady – I was young, I was new, and it became obvious rather quickly that no one feared me. I needed her, I leaned on her in some inexpressible way. Her influence mentored me. Her legend challenged me. And all the while, those strange things in the top drawer comforted me – old things waiting to have some new use. 

I never tried to be Sr. Blanche. It would have been utterly futile. But I took care of her plants, I read some of her old books. I tried to care for her people, and sit earnestly in her chair, and make her proud in my own small ways. And in the years I occupied that desk, I happily left the top drawer just as it was. It contained treasures I did not yet understand. 

As I look back on that time, I like to imagine that together, Sr. Blanche and I were like the scribe training for the kingdom, like householders bringing out of our treasuries what is new and what is old (Matt. 13:52).

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Sr. Blanche Twigg (1917-1999) joined the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in 1936 and served as the Director of Religious Education at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clinton, Maryland from 1974-1999.  Among other things, she was known for her thriftiness and her love of Scripture.

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Why We Love Our Ashes

Anyone who has worked in a Catholic parish knows what to expect on and around Ash Wednesday: telephone calls at all hours, strangers randomly showing up for ashes, folks leaving after receiving their ashes but before receiving the Eucharist. Among the “regulars,” there’s a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking, and an overwhelming desire to figure out why, on this day, getting ashes is the single-minded compulsion of every Catholic on the planet.

But what if this yearly “ash mania” isn’t just a mindless impulse? What if there is something deep and sacred behind it? Could it be that what drives even non-practicing Catholics to participate in this yearly ritual is that deep down it captures the essence of their Catholic faith and what they love about it? Could it be that this day of fasting and abstinence, this solemn inauguration of the Lenten season, has also become a day to celebrate our Catholic roots?

It seems that if we could get to the bottom of the compulsion to “get ashes,” we might find what people are really looking for, what drives and excites them, what is at the heart of the faith for many of our brothers and sisters. So here are just a few ideas about why we Catholics love our ashes.

Catholic Identity and Catholic Pride. Those who make it to an early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday get highest marks on “Catholic pride.” If you get to wear your ashes to work, or to school, or to the grocery store, you get to enjoy strange looks from those who do not know what’s going on and approving looks from those who do. Along the way someone will undoubtedly tell you that your forehead is dirty, and you will enjoy saying, “No it isn’t. I’m Catholic.” 

That smudge of ashes marks us as belonging to a group, a very special group, and it simply feels good to belong. This is not an exclusive group by any means; it is not a “secret club” or an elite members-only organization. It is an ancient conglomeration of all types. On Ash Wednesday, it is edifying to look around and see all those types. Our communal, dirty foreheads are a gentle way that we remind the world who we are. And we find that it feels good to be counter-cultural, together.

Sin and Death are Real. Catholics used to be accused of dwelling too much on sin (“Catholic guilt”) and death (“Why the crucifix? Don’t you know he’s risen?”). We’ve lightened up a bit, but we do still insist on reality: we are sinners, we do suffer, and we will die. On Ash Wednesday, we wear a visible sign of these realities – ashes symbolize both our sorrow for sin (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”) and the recognition of our own mortality (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). 

These might seem like depressing realities – why would we want to spend a day with sin and death on our foreheads? Because we know that the first step in diagnosing and remedying these conditions is to reveal and identify them. To hide them or never talk about them would be like hiding symptoms from our doctors and never being cured. If I am a sinner, I need a savior. If I am going to die, I need a miracle. Our faith offers us both. We do not proclaim our sinfulness for the sake of a guilty conscience, or our mortality for the sake of feeling sad. Rather we proclaim them so we might share in the antidote; we proclaim them for the sake of the savior and the miracle he can work in our lives. With this sign we proclaim the wise words of Christ: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31).

The Power of Touch. Allowing another person to mark us with the sign of ashes is a very personal thing. We are inviting someone else into our “personal space” and allowing them to mark us with a sign that makes us visibly vulnerable. Just as when we have our feet washed or share in a sincere sign of peace, we are momentarily bonded with the person opposite us, the person who draws near and touches us with sacred purpose. 

Although we are being marked with a sign of sin and death, the touch we receive is healing. It is a human touch that represents the healing ministry of Christ and his Church. Catholics are born into or later embrace this sacramental perspective. We see and experience deeper realities in our physical world – bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, water becomes a transforming wash. In this very Catholic way of looking at things, we don’t just get a smudge of ash from a stranger and go on with our lives. No, we stand before one who is both a fellow sinner and a mediator between human and divine realities; we allow ourselves to receive the healing touch of one who is also marked with ash, who also needs a savior, whose way of marking us somehow communicates understanding, hope, and the redemption we desire. The human touch that marks us with ashes is an experience of both human and divine love. Who wouldn’t show up for that?

The Satisfaction of Making an Effort. Why are Catholics willing to make phone calls, alter their plans, scramble kids’ schedules, or even duck out of work to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday? Perhaps it feels good to make an effort to either satisfy a perceived obligation or to do something we know is good for us. Sure, there are other obligations that Catholics may be lax about, but perhaps it’s the once-a-year nature of Ash Wednesday that motivates. Sunday Mass? That obligation is easy to push off: “I can always make it next week.” But Ash Wednesday? It’s only once a year: “I have to make it happen.”

Now perhaps this reason is not as deep or noble as the others, but it does touch on a natural human desire to participate in our own spiritual formation and growth. We instinctively know that although we are utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, there are some things we can and should do to foster our participation in that grace and mercy. Sitting at home watching television does not generally bring us closer to Christ. Perhaps Ash Wednesday serves as a wake-up call in terms of our priorities. How to keep that call coming every day is a much more challenging task.

Being Part of Something Ancient. There is something ancient about ashes. Even though the ashes we receive may be “fresh,” the symbolism goes way, way back. From ancient times, ashes have symbolized mourning and penance. We occasionally come across colorful old accounts in Scripture of prophets or penitents covering themselves in “sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3; Job 42:6). 

Even those who receive ashes without knowing this background at least know that it is a very old Catholic custom. In a Church that has “updated” in many ways in the past fifty years, our ashes remain the same. We are connected with years and centuries past in a ritual that calls us back even as it prods us forward. This is Catholicism at its best, embracing and inviting others to participate in a beauty “ever ancient, ever new" (St. Augustine, Confessions).

Almost a Year’s Worth of Spiritual Connections. The fact that the ashes applied to our heads on Ash Wednesday come from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday (though admittedly some parishes have now dropped this tradition and purchase their ashes from a supply catalog!) adds another layer of symbolism to the ash ritual. Even if we are not thinking about this symbolism as we go to receive our ashes, it still lies somewhere in the back of our minds, part of that collective Catholic consciousness.

On Palm Sunday of the previous Lent, we waved those palms in joyful welcome, in jubilant recognition of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. We waved them in celebration, but also with the weight of knowing what would happen in Jerusalem, and knowing how we, the crowds, would turn on him. Those palms went home with us as reminders of the joy and sorrow of Holy Week, of the mission of Christ who suffered for us, and of our own role in that suffering. And now, on Ash Wednesday, the palms have returned, they have been burned, and their ashes are applied to our own bodies as another sign – a continuing sign of the joy and sorrow of the penitent. In these ashes we have almost a year’s worth of spiritual connections – from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday, from Lent past to Lent present.

The Beauty of a Simple Ritual. We may as well admit that as much as Catholics love a good liturgy, we also like to know when things will start and finish (Sunday Mass is one hour, weekday Mass is half an hour, the rosary is a quarter of an hour), and we truly appreciate the occasional brief ritual. I’ll admit short confession lines and brief homilies are a few of my favorite things. 

I remember one year our family had been hit with some kind of virus, and on Ash Wednesday we were struggling to recover. We had read in the parish bulletin that ashes would be out in the church for those who could not attend a service. We stopped by, curious and a bit sheepish. Inside, a few people were praying, and it was very quiet. Several crystal dishes containing ashes were on a table at the front of the church, with brief instructions about what to say and how to apply the ashes. As we marked one another’s foreheads, it did feel unusual. But the moment was also profound in its simplicity, and the familiar words, as we said them to each another, sounded different. They sank into my mind in a new way. That year, the ritual was uncommonly brief, but it still hit home. While I’m not advocating this experience as the norm, sometimes a simple ritual has surprising impact – without time for our minds to wander or grow complacent, its power has a fighting chance to change us.

Why We Love Our Catholic Faith. Maybe at the heart of this list, we find not only what we love about ashes and what we love about Lent, but what we love about Catholicism itself: a strong identity that creates a sense of belonging, the power of the Cross and the touch of a mediator, a realistic sense of sin and death, an awareness that we have to work hard right along with God’s transforming grace, the holiness of old things, the connectedness of all truths, and sometimes, that good-old-fashioned Catholic satisfaction in following the because-it’s-good-for-you rules handed down by our beloved Church.

So if you work at a parish and you don’t think you can take one more phone call, or if you see your neighbors “ashed up” but you never even knew they were Catholic, or if the person in the pew next to you heads for the door before the Eucharistic Prayer, try to call to mind the power of ashes. On this day, we share a bond, a visible bond. On this day, we are so very proud to be Catholic.

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This piece was originally published in St. Anthony Messenger magazine, February 2016.

 Eli with ashes, 2013.

Eli with ashes, 2013.

Out of the Mouths of Sophomores

Last week I kept a longstanding promise to my friend Gina to visit a few of her high school classes and talk with them about the early Church. Presenting to high school students is not necessarily my forte, but I wanted to do my best. Mostly, I wanted to bring them a realistic and relevant message.

In both classes, we read Acts 15 and spent some time talking about how the early Church struggled with major decisions and disagreements: Who was Jesus? How did his death and resurrection save us? Should Gentile Christians follow the Mosaic law? Which gospels and letters belonged in Scripture?

Agreeing on these things was not a nice, neat process, I told them. But the early Christians – despite their disagreements – strove for unity. They didn’t all just go their own way. They wrestled with ideas; they collaborated. I wanted them to know that the Church has always had its controversies. I wanted them to know that the Church is still growing in faith. Yes, we might have a catechism now, but that doesn’t mean we “have it all figured out.”

At one point, I posed the question: “Why do you think God does things this way? Why doesn’t God just give us the answers?” I was expecting responses about the human community working together, listening to each other, growing closer as they worked through complex, controversial decisions. I thought someone might mention the benefit of having to depend on God and each other.

But one young lady on the front row surprised me with an even better answer than the one I had in mind. She said: “I think it’s because when you have to figure something out for yourself, then you know if you really believe it or not. If someone just tells you what to think, that isn’t really believing.”

Ah, the sophomore has spoken. And she’s onto something.

Isn’t this why Jesus taught in parables? Isn’t this why prayer is an essential part of the spiritual life? Isn’t this why knowing about God isn’t the same as being in relationship with God?

It isn’t that we ever really “figure things out” in a vacuum; we rely on the wisdom of others and the Spirit of God. But we have to enter in, take ownership. The creed we speak must be something we have discovered and lived, not just words we recite from a page in a book.

What have you wrestled with and come to believe?

 When have you been glad that God didn’t just give you the answers?

  Resurrection after Grunewald.  John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic  Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald . Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting,  before  we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.

Resurrection after Grunewald. John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald. Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting, before we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.

Will They Know We Are Christians

When I was a child, my family attended a Presbyterian church for several years. This was the place where I received my first Bible (a Good News Bible that I still cherish), and my teacher, Hessie Smith, wrote me a note and told me to put it in my Bible at Matthew 6:33 (it’s still there). Her lesson on John the Baptist was so descriptive that for a week I couldn’t stop thinking about how disgusting it must be to eat locusts with wild honey.

At the end of every Sunday service, we would hold hands with the people seated to our left and to our right, until every person in the church was connected. Then we would sing They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

I heard this message over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, my hand grasped by my mom or dad, or sometimes by a stranger, maybe even by one of my brothers on a rare occasion! Even as a child I knew the message rang with idealism but called us to something real. And I wondered how we were doing, and if we were failing. Because it was so obvious – you didn’t have to read every word of that Good News Bible to know it – you didn’t have to be a grown-up to know it – it was so obvious that the song should be true. But was it?

Jesus said, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It’s so easy to say or to sing. Much harder to do.

The Church is holy – we profess this – but it is not because she is perfect. It is because she is set apart. Set apart to do one task, to do it better than anyone else because she has had the perfect example. She is one with the Perfect Example.

The Church was created to love. This is the one thing that lies beneath, behind and beyond every aspect of her existence, from liturgy to evangelization. If it doesn’t, then we have failed before we have even begun.

Pope Francis said, "I desire a happy church with the face of a mother, who understands, accompanies, caresses. Dream of this church, believe in it, innovate it with freedom."

I see this church, and yet I dream of it. I have seen that loving face, and yet I yearn for it. I have been accompanied, and yet I dream of accompaniment. Let us innovate – transform – with love, and not fail each other. Let us innovate with every step, breath, word and song. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

 Every year on October 21, at Mount Sacred Heart in Hamden, CT (the home of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), sunlight shining through the stained glass in the chapel illuminates the heart of Jesus, turning it red. Sisters, students, and friends of the community gather to witness this natural sign of God's supernatural love. The motto of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the Pauline declaration:  "The love of Christ impels us" (2 Cor. 5:14).

Every year on October 21, at Mount Sacred Heart in Hamden, CT (the home of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), sunlight shining through the stained glass in the chapel illuminates the heart of Jesus, turning it red. Sisters, students, and friends of the community gather to witness this natural sign of God's supernatural love. The motto of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the Pauline declaration: "The love of Christ impels us" (2 Cor. 5:14).

When Your Parish Is Closing and Your Heart Is Breaking

Here in the Northeast, as in other parts of the country, the Catholic Church is in transition. In my own Archdiocese of Hartford, many parishes are closing. We have fewer priests, but we also have fewer Catholics. Closing or merging one hundred parishes allows us to band together in the parishes that remain – to worship, to learn, and to be together in larger, more robust communities.

But this transition does not come without controversy and heartache. I am familiar with both. I grew up in an Episcopal parish, and the church building itself was my second home. Besides the usual liturgies and classes and youth groups, I often went there after school and did my homework. I stayed for evening prayer in the chapel. I knew the people. I was comfortable there and welcome. But all of this changed while I was in high school. Two of our priests and many families in the parish (including my own), struck out on a new adventure: we were going to become Catholics. But this meant leaving my parish, my home. It meant leaving something so beautiful and familiar to me.

I know how you feel.

The thought of never seeing that crucifix again, or walking the path of those stations, or hearing that organ, broke my heart. There would be other crucifixes and stations. There would be other organs. But there would not be that one. The thought of never sitting in that garden, or kneeling in that confessional, or laughing with a friend in that kitchen, broke my heart. There would be other kitchens and confessionals. There would be other gardens. But there would not be that one.

Places can start to fit you, like comfortable clothes. You know how the place feels. You know what happened there.  You happened there. You planted those flowers. You sorted those cans in the parish food pantry. You drank coffee there. You took communion there. You made friends and had life-changing conversations and prayed and worshiped there. You gazed out that window and sat in that chapel and lit those candles. You learned, and questioned, and accepted. That place was where you became a Christian.

Don’t let anyone tell you that buildings don’t matter. Of course they don’t matter as much as people and communities do. Of course they don’t matter as much as your faith and your beliefs do. Of course they don’t matter as much as your resilience and your resolve do. But they do matter. And losing them is like losing a friend, or a loved one, or a beautiful memory.

And so it is natural, and normal, and even necessary, to grieve and to be sad. But in this grief, do not go your own way. In this grief, turn back to your community. Turn back to your Church. Turn back toward your people, and not away by yourself.  Find the thing that grew in your heart as you lived and breathed in that building. The thing that grew in you was love. This is the precious piece, the piece you must take with you to your new home, your new building. 

For there are many gifts that human beings are given, and many attitudes that we may choose to adopt.  But there is only one that always heals and points forward. There is only one that always brings peace, even if that peace takes time. That gift, that attitude, is love. Of all the gifts our parish communities can have – all the charisms, programs, ministries and funds – there is none so great and so necessary as love. Greater even than working miracles, or leading or teaching, greater even than prophecy.  Naming these fine things, St. Paul wrote, “But I will show you a still more excellent way.”  This most excellent way is love – patient and kind, not insisting on its own way, not resenting. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never ends.

We will mourn what we leave behind. But we will go forward with our love for one another still intact. And by this love, they will know that we are Christians.

  Jesus the Good Shepherd  by Maurice Denis (1903). Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim . Jesus does not wish to lose a single sheep. 

Jesus the Good Shepherd by Maurice Denis (1903). Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim. Jesus does not wish to lose a single sheep.