Angelic Delivery

Bread, milk, fruit, eggs,

a family puzzle we stayed up till 11pm one night doing,

a stuffed animal for my toddler,

a sewing project for my 8 year old,

a kind word of encouragement,

a witty joke,

a reference to literature

a story from across the world

a promise to pray:

these are the things my friend of 14 years,

Sister Angela, has brought to my door

when she’s stopped by some evenings around 8 pm,

after a busy day of caring for migrants and the poor,

to leave groceries and an unassuming smile.

“It’s exactly what we needed!” I exclaim.

“God knew,” she answers with quiet confidence…

my angel, my messenger,

bearing so many little tokens

of God’s love.

Easter Accompanies the Suffering Heart with Hope

When I was in the depths of grief after losing my baby daughter Josephine five years ago, I found it was very hard to go through holidays that focus primarily on being joyful. The pressure to be happy was too much. Christmas is cosy and lovely and normally a huge favourite of mine, but not when the pain is still too raw. In times of struggle, I prefer Easter.

Why? Those of you who know me might be thinking of one thing: chocolate! All the chocolate without all the work of Christmas. I am definitely a believer chocolate’s ability to comfort and to express affection when given. I almost always include some chocolate in the grief baskets my friend Julia and I make for bereaved moms, along with my baby loss poetry book and other encouraging books and self-care items, but no, chocolate isn’t the reason.

Although these days, when things are extra stressful around the world, there are times when I’d like to simply bury my entire face in a Tuxedo chocolate layer cake, there is something chocolate cannot do: accompany me in my suffering. Share my grief. Give dignity to my tears, by saying, “I, too, have suffered. You are not alone.” This is something God can do. This is something Jesus does from the cross.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.” – St. John Paul II

Despite all the wild and crazy things that happen in a complex world where there is human freedom, and also the realities of pain and death, we can be consoled by knowing that we do not suffer alone, for we have a God who is compassionate. As I would tell my kids in homeschool, compassion comes from the Latin “cum” (with) “passio” (I suffer). But why would God want to enter our mess, instead of remaining “aloof in icy splendour,” as the archbishop of Toronto poetically asked yesterday?

Love. A personal love for each person ever created. A tender love for you and for me individually. A desire to accompany us in our hardest moments, and to help us bear them.

I have experienced this same desire myself. After losing Josephine, I had an intense desire to be with others who were in pain, to accompany them in their mourning, to hold their hands on the long road to recovery. I could not make their pain disappear, but I could feel it with them, and let them know their grief was valid–was in fact a beautiful sign of their immense love for those lost.

So if you are in mourning this Easter, I encourage you to reach out to the source of love through prayer. God truly cares about your struggles, and wants to help you carry your crosses, as once he carried his own: with blood, and sweat and tears, but also with the dignity of one who gave his life for others freely, out of love. By reaching out to console others in pain, you, too, share in the healing power of God’s generous love, a love stronger than death.

Loving Through the Fear: A Mortal Mission

It is strange how this virus has woken us up to a very obvious but often ignored fact: we are mortal. This reminder of our fragility has caused us to panic and scramble, as if it were possible to avoid this inevitable outcome of our lives–their ending. The ending has been there all along, but not in such a prevalent, “hiding around the corner” kind of way.

So how should we respond to this intense affirmation that our lives are a brief and precious gift?

With love. With love that is stronger than death. With love that connects us all. With love that can reach across the globe into every trembling heart. With many, many, concrete acts of love. It there were ever a time for “random acts of kindness,” it is now. Except they are not random; they are very much the point of our existence: to affirm the irreplaceable nature of every human life, and to honour each person with our little acts of affection and and kindness, to find in the face of the poor, the lonely and the stranger, the face of God.

Imagine for just a moment what might happen at this uniquely uncharted point in time if we all choose to set aside politics, agendas, finger pointing, conspiracies, and our own (very real & very different) fears.

What if we choose Right Now to take care of one another and put compassion, love, and service above all else? What if we turn our necessary distance into something even bigger than saving lives?

An Open Letter to Humanity

Everyone will do this in their own way, living with a sense of personal mission to serve their families, their friends and their communities with all the talents and passion they can muster. It is by loving that we mortal beings unite ourselves to the Immortal One, the fount of life and source of love, and come to share in a life beyond the fragile one we have here.

Let us burn our life’s candle brightly and share its light with those around us. Then, whenever its light is snuffed out, we will continue to glow in the hearts of people whom we have loved.

Prayer: Quiet Discernment for Living Well

Lent is here, and as with most things, the reactions to it vary. Some people view it with excitement, rather like a mini New Years…a forty day challenge to free oneself from poor habits, gain more self-control and discipline so they can live better and be happier. Others respond to the challenge to increase prayer, fasting and almsgiving with a sense of dread…the ominous idea of dying to oneself overwhelming them, and making them want to seek refuge in a binge of Netflix’s and chocolate cookies. Maybe most of us are a mix of both…always struggling between the pull of instant gratification and the discipline required to grow and make long term gains.

But what are these three cornerstones of Lent, the season of preparation for the great feast of Easter, all about anyway? How do prayer, fasting and almsgiving lead to a better life?

In this post, I will share a few thoughts on the first one–prayer–since I went to a great talk in prayer at our parish mom’s group today. Normally, I’m busy homeschooling my kids in the morning, but today the brilliant sunshine pulled us outside, so we decided to go and have some gym time at the playground.

As we moms sat sipping coffee, nursing babies and feeding toddlers snacks, Father gave us a talk on prayer. He recommend reading something inspirational to turn our minds and hearts to God, and to help us ponder areas in which we could grow and improve. This reading can help us find God’s presence and start speaking to him from our hearts, as children to their loving father. We can then prayerfully discern how we can best live our daily lives, asking for God’s guidance and wisdom, and the grace and strength to do what is best.

This is where the will comes in: the follow through of the resolutions we have made in our prayer. Without this willingness to take action, all our inspirations would be just pretty thoughts. St. Josemaria said:

Love is deeds, not sweet words alone.

So while Christians are sometimes accused of “wasting” time in prayer, or only living for the next world, a true understanding of prayer reveals that the purpose of prayer is actually to help us live well and love well, here and now. To do God’s will in our lives means embracing our personal circumstances with gratitude and trying our best to always grow and improve in how we live, so that we can also help improve the lives of those around us.

Prayer is taking time to listen to the voice of our conscience, and asking for the strength to follow it, even when it’s hard. It’s not something for once or twice a year on a special day, but an integral part of being human, something for every day.

My sister sent me a great article called “If you’re too busy for these 5 things, your life is way more off course than you think. In it, the author emphasized the need for regular discernment about the important things in life. He described how a tiny initial error of two degrees ultimately led an airplane to crash into a snow covered volcano over Antarctica, killing all its passengers. In our lives, we can get off track in little ways that lead to huge problems later. Quietly pondering how things are going each day, and slightly adjusting out sails, can help prevent us from blundering into disasters we never intended to meet.

Prayer helps us live intentionally. It helps us to respond thoughtfully, instead of just reacting emotionally. In his excellent book, Perfectly Yourself: Discovering God’s Dream For You, Matthew Kelly describes how prayer can help “lengthen our fuses” and make us more patient and able to practice self-control. Prayer can help us find the good in difficult situations, and to endure more pain than we imagined possible. It can also help us savour the good, true and beautiful in life. For me, writing poetry is prayer, because it helps me ponder things in my heart, and to share them.

Chances are, if you’re spending some time unplugged from screens, thinking about your life and the people who matter to you, you are praying, whether or not you even realize it. It could be while you’re jogging the sea wall, looking out at the ocean. It could be while you’re folding your children’s clothes or doing dishes. It could be while you’re painting, writing, or listening to music. When we enter that temple within us, that timeless place where we connect with eternity, we are praying. The fruit of that prayer should be a renewed vigour for living well, for getting up and trying again after we fail, a humble desire to live and love better, and to pursue our dreams with courage.

May your time in prayer this Lent help you establish a deeper link with the still, small voice within you, so you can live a more fulfilling life, and daily strive to become the best version of yourself.

Anointing of Ashes

The hangry fire has devoured the proud palms,

their waving glory burned to a crisp,

memories of triumph silenced

by the crackling, crimson flames.

All that remains is ashes.

They are cool, smooth and dusky on my forehead,

these humble signs of humanity

two short lines anointing me

a daughter of God,

having taken the riotous death by fire

and transformed it into a quiet cream,

a healing lotion which proclaims,

“I am dust and unto dust I shall return,”

yet I rejoice in the hope of life

beyond the blaze!

My Aunt’s Nativity: An Advent Reflection

This afternoon while the toddler was sleeping, my eldest daughter set up our nativity set. It is a beautiful porcelain one given to us by my sweet Auntie Shirley, who is a retired interior decorator with an eye for beauty. We are very honoured to have her nativity.

Going to her home as a child and having Christmas dinner with all the cousins was for me the essence of cozy family closeness. Being there laughing and singing with everyone gave me a warmth that stays with me today, and makes me want my home to be such an open, welcoming place as my Auntie Shirley and Uncle Bill’s was.

I hope everyone has a joyful place to be this Christmas, and that they know how loved they are, just as they are, by the God who became small enough to put his tiny hand in ours, even though his heart contains the entire universe. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend that we are loved unconditionally. We feel it’s impossible–that nothing in life is free–but in this case we are wrong. We don’t have to earn the love that preceded our existence.

“I’ve been alive forever,” my little son told me the other day with conviction. “Always and always.” “Well, you’ve always existed in God’s heart; he always had the plan to make you.”

It is hard for us to comprehend this kind of generosity…only as parents can we imagine it a little, knowing how much we love our kids, even before they are born. I think it’s partly why God came to us as a poor, tiny baby, smelling of hay and breathed on by donkeys–so we wouldn’t be afraid of loving him, and even harder, wouldn’t be afraid of letting him love us, just as we are.

Rather than a call to apathy, this love is a call to greatness, for can anything inspire us more to want to grow better, than the firm conviction that we are already loved, exactly as we are? It is mercy and not harshness that helps us live and love well. It takes great strength to love others while also helping them to grow. May we finish this year living with mercy, strength and love, and may we be helped to do so by the sweet God who loves us even when we fail.

To Life!

Christmas is coming and there’s a lot of emphasis on being happy in this season of joy. But life with all it’s challenges continues in December like in any month, with extra business on top of it, so here’s a poem for anyone out there who’s had a bad day recently. You’re not alone!

Sometimes the best way to feel better is to allow yourself to feel crummy for a little while instead of fighting it. For me, writing poetry helps me indulge in my melancholy mood and then let it go, rather than having sadness trapped inside.

To Life!

Oh, life!

Oh, imperfect messiness!

Oh, easily screwed up days,

repeated mistakes

and ever unchanging weaknesses…

Wounds that hide and reappear

like dolphins under water

surfacing for breath,

seeking light and healing

and disappearing again.

Am I am I am I

ever going to grow?

Going to stop failing,

stop falling,

stop saying bitter things–

crouching under a shield of sarcasm

feeling so small

I have to pretend

I’m invulnerable.

Not likely.

But, oh! God bless me

and help me never give up trying.

Each day let me not be crushed

by insecurity.

I am scuffed up and tiny

but thus you have made me

and love me through it all.

Amen.

Amen to life!

Because I may be a fool

but even a fool can live life

and love.

“The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom

Last night I stayed up reading a novel till unmentionable small hours of the morning. I couldn’t put it down. I tried but couldn’t sleep. I had to know how things would turn out for these ordinary yet heroic Hollanders who hid Jewish people in their Haarlem home in World War Two. The fact that this story is true and autobiographical added a bittersweet poignancy which really captivated me.

I can’t recommend this heroic story enough. But be sure to buy Kleenex, and some strong coffee (preferably Dutch) for the mornings after you stay up way too late reading it on the edge of your seat. The sacrifice of sleep will be worth it to renew your faith in the amazing ability of humanity to survive in the most horrific circumstances…and not only to survive, but to thrive, at least interiorly. The women in this story suffer deeply, but instead of becoming darkened by hate, they become luminous…in the midst of evil, they glow. Love does this. Faith does this. Unshakable determination to do what is right does this.

I was extremely inspired by the ten Boom family, whose loving description reminded me a bit of the family in Little Women. It made me feel that my struggles are very small indeed, and that I want to pray for greater heroism in overcoming the bitterness and self-pity that can creep in through the cracks of exhaustion. Corrie, who is a watchmaker in her 50’s when she joins the Dutch underground movement, makes it very clear that any good she did came not from her own virtue or strength, but from the faith and love infused into her soul. God’s providence runs through the story like a shining golden thread.

What is amazing, besides all she did to save her fellow human beings, especially Jews, during the war, is what she does after the war, having been through harsh prisons and concentration camps. She opens homes for victims of war, where they can live in a loving home, grow flowers and vegetables and find hope again. Beyond that, she travels the world sharing her story of the power of love to overcome evil, and that God’s loving forgiveness that exists for all, no matter how dark their past. She does not neglect Germany, the land of her wartime fears and captivity, when sharing her message of peace.

The Hiding Place resonates with me in a very personal level because I have Dutch family who hid Jews in their home during the war, and my Opa himself, who worked for the Dutch radio, hid from the Nazis when they wanted him to spew propaganda. When soldiers knocked on the door, Opa Koenig would quickly open the floorboards in the attic and lower himself into a little hiding place. My cute blonde, blue-eyed Dutch stepdad and his sister would then throw a blanket over the area and sit on it playing with their toys. Thankfully, the soldiers would simply look around the room, pat their little heads, and leave. I can’t imagine the stress of this on kids, but Opa survived the war and was never caught, unlike so many others.

If you’re looking for a book to read this November as we approach Remembrance Day, try “The Hiding Place.” It’s the kind of book that touches your soul and leaves you forever grateful for the goodness of the ordinary heroes among us.

This Life

This life–

so beautiful and terrible,

so full of horror and sunsets,

of crushing sadness,

kissable babies toes,

and mellow evening skies through the treetops.

This world of ours,

pulsing with life,

yet ever falling into death.

What is is life, Lord, without you,

who holds all things in being,

from inexpressible richness

to indescribable pain,

from grandmother’s smiles

to pizza.

You stretch our caterpillar spirits,

–too often content

to curl up comfortably at home

in our protective layer of fur–

until we become as expansive as butterflies,

wings dancing across the entire sky,

exposed to the sun and wind and starlight,

and intimately close to you–

face to face,

forever.