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‘Love them anyway…’

Missionaries of Charity in Rome. Copyright Mary DeTurris Poust, Rome 2010.

On this feast day for Blessed Mother Teresa, I got to thinking about Mother Teresa moments in my life. The photo above is one. I had just arrived in Rome and was a little lost, when I came upon these two Missionaries of Charity. They were walking down the street, saw this homeless man and immediately knelt down beside him, took pizza bianca from their bags, and gave it to him with such tenderness and care. Of all the basilicas and great works of art I captured on camera during that trip, this image remains one of my favorites from my time in Rome.

My other Mother Teresa moment actually involved Mother Teresa. I was a young, 20-something reporter working for Catholic New York when I met her in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was after an anniversary Mass for the late Cardinal Terence Cooke. Someone introduced me to Mother Teresa, and she reached over and touched my arm. For the longest time I held onto that sweater, not because I liked it very much (I didn’t) but because Mother Teresa had touched it. Finally, somewhere along life’s way, it got passed on or tossed into a donation bag. I’d like to think some person at a shelter or salvation army store got a whole bunch of unexpected grace when they picked up that used sweater.

I was having a hard time trying to decide what Mother Teresa quote I would include here today. There are just so many pearls of wisdom. Then I opened a book of daily reflections on peace (not a Catholic book) and found these words from a sign that was posted on the wall of Mother Teresa’s Shishu Bhavan children’s home in Calcutta:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,
Succeed anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
Build anyway.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them,
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

And in case you just want one short keeper of a Mother Teresa quote, here you go:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

For moms everywhere, on the Feast of St. Monica

Just about one year ago, when I spent 11 days in Rome, I had the chance to visit the Church of St. Augustine (seen here) multiple times since it was just around the corner from Santa Croce University, where I was attending a seminar for journalists.

In this beautiful church, complete with an altar and angels by Bernini and paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, is the tomb of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, whose feast we celebrate today.

I knelt before her tomb, so grateful just to be in Rome, and whispered prayers for all the moms who had asked me to remember their intentions while I was in the Eternal City. And I prayed for mothers everywhere, because no matter what our background, no matter how much we do, we often think its not enough, that we are not enough.

So today, as then, I am remembering all the moms I know and those I don’t, praying we find the patience and strength we need to live out our vocations fully and joyfully and that we also have eyes to see not only where we think we fall short but where we are doing our best — teaching our children, serving our families, trusting in God — day after day, year after year.

I remembered all of you this morning as I said Morning Prayer, and I will remember you again in just a little while when I go to Mass. Please remember me in your prayers as well. And let us turn to St. Monica for comfort when we do come up against those hard times and wonder how we will get through. She was living proof that the power of persistent prayer can change lives — our own and those of our children.

Setting the record straight on Mary Magdalene

She was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, there at the foot of the cross when the others ran away, the first one Jesus appeared to after the Resurrection, a critical figure in the earliest Church, the “Apostle to the Apostles,” and yet Mary Magdalene continues to be dogged by the incorrect identification as the prostitute from Scripture, or, when novelist Dan Brown gets involved, as the wife of Jesus.

So today, on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, I was so happy to read “Who Was Mary Magdala?” by Jesuit Father James Martin over on America’s In All Things blog.

Father Martin writes:

The most benign explanation for this confusion over Mary’s identity is that there is a veritable crowd of Marys in the Gospel stories (besides Mary, the mother of Jesus, there is Mary of Bethany and Mary, the wife of Clopas). Mary Magdalene was also, oddly, conflated with a woman who had bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with oil. In AD 591, Pope Gregory I preached a sermon in which he proclaimed, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.”

This inaccurate identification became more or less church teaching for at least a millennium.

A less benign interpretation of this “confusion” is that the early church was threatened, even horrified, by the stunning example of a woman among the early disciples. Strictly based on the evidence in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene enjoyed an exalted standing. She was not only the first one to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection, but also the one who proclaimed the news of his resurrection to the other disciples, including those who would be the leaders of the early church communities: Peter, James, Andrew, and the rest.

Thus comes Mary’s traditional title: “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her fidelity to Jesus during the Crucifixion, as well as Jesus’ appearance to her, are marks of distinction that place her, at least in terms of her faith, above the men. Some of the “extracanonical,” or “apocryphal,” gospels (that is, those not included by the early church councils with the traditional four Gospels) picture her as the most favored of all the disciples. “[Christ loved] her more than all the disciples,” says the text known as The Gospel of Philip.

Perhaps it was convenient for the early church fathers to dismiss Mary Magdalene and even insult her as a prostitute, fearful of what her role would mean for the place of women in the early church.

They didn’t teach that version in CCD class, did they? Can I get an Amen? Now, please go read the rest of the post — which is an excerpt from Father Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Behind the Scenes with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More – by clicking HERE. You’ll get to read Father Martin’s take on the “marginalization of Mary Magdalene” in its newest form, thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which is too often taken as fact, even by well-meaning Catholics.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.

The truth about Dorothy Day, from someone who knows

I’ve always been drawn to Dorothy Day. Maybe it’s the powerful combination of her words and actions. I think more so it’s my awe for someone who’s able to do what she did. To be willing — happy, even — to be mistaken for a homeless woman. To so radically embrace the poor and so faithfully embrace the Church. A modern-day St. Francis, but totally her own. Totally new.

Author and Orbis Books publisher Robert Ellsberg, who worked alongside Dorothy Day for the last five years of her life, writes beautifully and eloquently today (on Huffington Post) about Dorothy — who she was, what she stood for, and the things we should never forget:

Despite all the sadness and suffering around her, she had an eye for the transcendent. There were always moments when it was possible to see beneath the surface. “Just look at that tree!” she would say. It might be an act of kindness, the sound of an opera on the radio, or the sight of flowers growing on the fire-escape outside her window: such moments caused her heart to rejoice. She liked to quote St. Teresa of Avila, who said, “I am such a grateful person that I can be purchased for a sardine.”

Above all she was a woman of prayer. She attended daily Mass, when she was able; she rose at dawn each day to recite the morning office and to meditate on scripture. After years of reading the breviary the language of the Psalms had become her daily bread: “Sing to the Lord a new song … sing joyfully to the Lord.”

When I went to the Catholic Worker I was not motivated by explicitly religious interests. Like Dorothy, I had been raised in the Episcopal Church, but I had pretty much drifted away from organized religion. What drew me to the Catholic Worker was Dorothy’s lifetime of consistent opposition to war, and the fact that her convictions were rooted in solidarity with the poor and those who suffered. Ultimately, I came to appreciate not just Dorothy’s anti-war convictions but the deeper tradition and spirituality that sustained her. I understood nothing about Dorothy if I didn’t realize the importance of the sacraments, prayer, liturgy, and the communion of saints, in which her witness was rooted. When I understood that, I felt a need to become a Catholic myself.

Reading that recollection gives me courage and hope. So often today we’re led to believe we can either be true to the Church or be true to ourselves. Dorothy shows that we can be both. What a comfort and motivation to do more, be more, trust more.

If that doesn’t get you, then try this conclusion to Ellsberg’s post:

Dorothy was a great believer in what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.” In each situation, in each encounter, in each task before us, she believed, there is a path to God. We don’t need to be in a monastery or a chapel. We don’t need to become different people first. We can start today, this moment, where we are, to add to the balance of love in the world, to add to the balance of peace.

Start today. Right here. Right now. And be sure to go to HuffPo to read the full post by clicking HERE.

In the footsteps of St. Benedict…

With a breathtaking valley stretching out below and an ancient monastery clinging to the cliffs above, Subiaco, Italy, feels as though it is a world away from the chaotic streets of Rome, only 40 miles to its west. And, in a sense, it is.

Steeped in history that stretches back to the Roman Empire and the earliest centuries of the Roman Catholic Church, Subiaco is a place out of time, giving visitors a chance to step into the very same cloisters, caves and gardens that were once home to ancient saints and medieval monks. Read more

Snow drops, bright stars and sore throats


A sure sign of spring in upstate New York is the arrival of the snow drops, the first tiny flowers to emerge from the cold, dark earth. I snapped that picture above more than a week ago, but — because of an illness, which we’ll get to later in this post — I never did get around to posting it. So the snow drops have been here for about nine days, and have been battered and bruised by two minor snows. And still they remain standing strong. I think that’s what I love about these little flowers. I look forward to seeing their bobbing white heads from my kitchen window every year around this time. It’s a sign of hope, a reminder of what’s to come — eventually.

And while they look so delicate, so easily broken from the outside, they are, in reality, incredibly strong and ferociously tough. How else could they push through the winter-hardened ground and withstand freezing temperatures and snow and, often, the trampling of little feet. They are deceptively resilient. And that’s why I love them. I can see them now, way out in the yard, only four inches off the ground but towering above all the other brown, withered plants.

As I mentioned, I’ve been sick for more than a week, a nasty sore throat that turned into abscesses, that turned into swollen tonsils and more. It left me unable to work, unable to move, unable to think. I just sat on the couch, like a zombie, staring forward. And so I did something I almost never do. I watched endless amounts of TV, mostly cooking channels but every so often a certifiable “chick flick.” And my favorite of the week was “Bright Star,” the story of the tragic love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

First let me say that Dennis should be thanking his lucky stars that I streamed this one from Netflix while he was at work. He would have fallen asleep in the first fifteen minutes, but I thought this film by Jane Campion was just beautiful. And it reminded me that I once spent an entire semester studying Keats and his Romantic counterparts — Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge. Remember those days of spending an entire semester on one slice of something? No wonder I can’t remember stuff anymore. Maybe if I had an entire semester to take notes and read commentaries on every novel I read, I’d remember more about the books I read nowadays. Or I’d at least remember I read them at all.

I think back to my days at Pace University now and marvel at the fact that I could take an entire semester of Russian lit, Irish lit, Shakespeare (although I did at least two on Shakespeare) and still only scratch the surface. Remember those days? Weeks on end of Irish literature but still not enough time to handle Ulysses, which was a course unto itself. Anyway, Bright Star made me want to revisit those Romantic poets — and some of my all-time college favs, like Anna Karenina — from my more mature vantage point. What subject or book would you go back and revisit if you could return to your college days?

Finally, a little faith story to go with the sore throat nightmare. Friday night did not look good for me. After more than a week of illness, three different antibiotics, four doctor visits (including two that felt like something out of a horror movie thanks the procedures that were required), seven pounds lost in seven days due to my inability to eat, and endless amounts of pain and lost sleep, I thought I was going to the Emergency Room. My tonsil had swelled to the point that I felt as though my throat was closing up. I moved my head this way and that and found a way to avoid the ER. I slept sitting up in a recliner since laying down cut off my airway. Dennis checked on my breathing throughout the night. It was a little ridiculous.

When I woke up on Saturday, things didn’t feel much better. Dennis and Noah had to work at our parish school all day, so I was alone with the girls. I had the phone in my hand in case I needed to call 9-1-1 at a moment’s notice. It was that bad. I assumed that at some point I was going to the ER no matter how hard I tried to fight it.

Then I went upstairs, dug around my closet for a bag I brought back from Italy this fall, and pulled out a Miraculous Medal. It’s not an expensive or fancy medal, just one of a few I purchased in time for the papal audience so it could be blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. But this medal is extra special for one reason: Later in my trip, I brought that medal to the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II and asked the guard to lay it on the tomb for me.

I took the medal from the bag and pinned it to my shirt as close to the my swollen tonsil as possible, and I prayed to John Paul II. About 90 minutes later, my throat felt clear. No difficulty breathing, and, for the first time in about eight days, no difficulty swallowing. I ate lunch. Lunch! I could talk without struggling. I kept waiting for the throat problems to return, but they never did. By afternoon I made a big tray of baked ziti and a giant salad and sat down to a feast for dinner. Dennis and the kids stared in amazement as I wolfed down cheesy pasta. Every other time I’d try to eat dinner with them for more than a week I would leave the table, unable to take more than one bite. And I usually cried through that from the pain.

When I went to bed last night, I figured that was the test. I would lay down and realize that I still couldn’t breathe properly. Wrong. My head hit the pillow and I slept undisturbed for about eight hours straight. As I said on Facebook, I’m not saying all this is cause for canonization or anything, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s my own personal miracle. I was headed to the ER one minute and whipping up dinner the next. Thank you, John Paul II.

It’s about St. Patrick, not green beer

In my childhood home, St. Patrick’s Day did not resemble the unfortunate drunken revelry we see on our TV screens every March 17. It wasn’t about drinking too much or dying all our food green (although my mother did bake one batch of green cupcakes for dessert every year). It was about celebrating our ancestry and our faith.

I’m half-Irish (and half-Italian), and St. Patrick’s Day was a time to be proud of our Irish heritage. Sure, we had the requisite “Kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons for fun, but we also had Irish music playing in the background and Irish soda bread baking in the oven. Our party was a dinner party, with corned beef and cabbage and boiled carrots and potatoes. Yes, an American-Irish meal, for sure, but that was our identity.

So on this Feast of St. Patrick — and growing up in the New York Archdiocese, this day was always raised to the level of true “feast” — I wanted to share a little history about the saint of the day. Here’s an excerpt from my new book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass, which includes a section on the saints, of course.

From page 136 of the Essential Guide:

Despite what’s often popularly assumed, St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was not born on the Emerald Isle. He was born in 385 in an unknown location, possibly Wales. He was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery at 16. During six years of slavery, he went through a religious transformation. He escaped to Europe, studied the faith, and became a bishop and missionary, returning to Ireland to bring Christianity to the pagans. He eventually brought about the conversion of the entire Irish people.

Legend has it he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. His feast day is March 17. He is the patron saint of Ireland and engineers and is invoked against snakes due to the legend that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland.

From St. Patrick’s Breastplate

Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ be after me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right hand, Christ at my left,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in the hearts of all who love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Erin go bragh.

On St. Scholastica’s feast, a view from Subiaco

When I was in Italy this past September, the final full day of the trip included a daylong visit to the Monastery of St. Benedict and the Monastery of St. Scholastica in Subiaco, just an hour’s bus ride from Rome. It was a beautiful day, filled with awesome sights and spiritual inspiration. So today, on the Feast of St. Scholastica, I thought I’d share some photos from the monastery that bears her name. Read more

Why Merton matters

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton some 25 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I’m not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint. But that’s precisely why he’s a great example.

I find comfort in the fact that he carried on, following his path toward God, even when he was thrown off course by his humanness. I look at Merton and see holiness wrapped in weakness, and isn’t that where most of us are? We’re all called to be saints, but oftentimes our humanity gets in the way. In Merton, we can see ourselves, trudging ever closer to God despite mistakes — some of them pretty major — and confusion and doubt.

Today, on the 42nd anniversary of his death by accidental electrocution in Bagkok, I am taking time to remember and reflect, but Merton is never far from my thoughts because so many of his words are constantly ringing in my ears.

Hanging next to my desk is this Merton quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

See what I mean? Comforting and yet challenging. I read those words and think, “Oh, good, Merton had no idea where he was going either.” Then I read a little more and think, “Oh, no, he trusted God completely. Can I do the same?” For me that’s a saintly role model, reminding me that I’m not alone but pushing me to go beyond my typical response and reach for something deeper, truer.

A couple of years ago, I received a wonderful blessing in the form of a silent retreat called “Merton in the Mountains.” By a lake in the low peaks of the Adirondacks I had one weekend of solitude and silence, a brief glimpse into Merton’s way of life. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was downright difficult and more than a little frightening — to give up my voice, to sit and wait for God while trying to throw off the monkeys of worry and doubt and pride and ambition. Merton knew those same feelings, and yet he continued to return to the silence, the solitude because that is where he knew he’d find God.

Another quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly traveling from one geographic possibility to another. A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment on, solitude is not potential — it is actual.

But perhaps the quote that always calls me back, the one that echoes in my head, is the quote below. It’s a constant reminder of my inability to ever know God if I try to make him in my own image:

God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.

We know him better after our minds have let him go.

The Lord travels in all directions at once.

The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us.

Merton reminds me that I still have a shot, even when I don’t get it right on a pretty regular basis. Merton, with his beautiful and powerful words, gives me something to hold onto when God feels very far away.

Thomas Merton, pray for us.