Getting in Shape—Spiritually

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius   
By Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH

Almost like clockwork, ads for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nautilus, Bowflex and other quick and easy weight-loss and physical improvement programs flood the media after the Christmas holidays.  It seems that many people make New Year’s resolutions to look and feel better by spring, even though most of us know that a life-long dedication to regular exercise and attention to diet are necessary to achieve overall good health.

What about our spiritual health and well-being?  Can a simple quick-fix approach deepen our relationship with God?  Spiritual masters tell us that we have to develop “habits of the heart” or practice spiritual disciplines consistently throughout our lifetime if we wish to grow closer to Christ.  One such method was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th Century.  Based on the reflection of his own conversion experience, he designed a plan to help spiritual seekers learn the art of discernment: seeking and responding to God’s will in the circumstances of one’s particular life.  He called his method the Spiritual Exercises, and the text is considered a unique spiritual classic.

Ignatius intended the Spiritual Exercises to be completed during a month-long retreat or spread out over many months in the midst of everyday life.  In the process of doing the Exercises the “retreatant” learns various ways of prayer and is invited to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ in order to make a serious decision in tune with the mind and heart of Christ.  The most common method of prayer that Ignatius suggests is a form of contemplation in which the person uses the active imagination in praying with certain gospel events in the life of Christ.  At the end of the Exercises the retreatant has developed a habit of prayer that can be nurtured throughout a lifetime.

Many retreat centers and some parishes offer the longer format of the Spiritual Exercises, often between September and the following May.  Retreatants make a commitment to pray one hour a day and to meet in a group once a week (or every other week) to share prayer and experience support from each other.  This format can be particularly helpful for those who want to develop a way to pray and reflect in the midst of professional careers and family life.

Here is one of St. Ignatius’ prayers:

Lord, I freely yield my freedom to you.
Take my memory, my intellect and my entire will.
You have given me anything I am or have;
I give it all back to you to stand under your will alone.
Your love and your grace are enough for me;
I shall ask for nothing more.

Smiling Memories of Christmas Past

By Sister Loretta Cornell, President, MHSH

When we came downstairs on Christmas morning to all the presents under the tree—and I do mean ALL the presents because there were 11 of us—we sang Happy Birthday to the baby Jesus.  After that we each looked for our special pile of presents, which would consist of things we needed such as socks and clothing as well as a toy, a game and a sock filed with nuts, hard Christmas candy, a tangerine and an apple.

After the presents were opened, Mom and Dad would go to Mass together.  Sometimes, those of us who hadn’t gone to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve would go with our parents.

When they came home it was time to play the games. My Dad played the games with us and my Mom went to the kitchen to cook.  We had the best fun, laughing and carrying on with Dad, who usually won the games, but it didn’t matter.  We had fun and enjoyed one another.  In the early afternoon, we would gather and have our Christmas dinner, which always began with grace and thanking Jesus for being born into our lives.

Our Christmas was equal parts joy in the birth of Jesus, warmth in being together as a family and the sheer fun of playing with new games and toys.  Those Christmases have blessed me with loving and smiling memories. And they have sustained me through Christmas days that were less merry—times when there was loss and sadness and missing people long gone.

But still, after all these years, today my thoughts of Christmas are still smiles and laughter and a profound thankfulness for the gift of the infant Jesus and the love that shines through family and friends and memories.

I hope this remembrance of my early Christmas days brings a smile to your face and heart.  And I hope that you, too, have cherished memories that light up this holy time.  May Jesus always be the center of your life and your Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad.

Las Posadas

By Sister Sonia-Marie Fernández, MHSH

In Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and some parts of Central America, a wonderful Christmas tradition—“Las Posadas”—is celebrated during the nine days before Christmas. The name “Las Posadas” literally means “the inns, shelter, or lodgings.”

It is a re-enactment symbolizing the Biblical journey that Joseph and Mary took to find shelter as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of the Christ child, Jesus. It goes from December 16 to 24 each year. Its origin is debatable; some say Las Posadas began in Spain and others believe it originated in Mexico. Nonetheless, it is now becoming popular in the United States, especially in Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Las Posadas celebration is different in individual areas, but all have the same common theme of re-enacting the nativity. In the United States it is difficult for an entire town to observe Las Posadas, so it usually is done in individual neighborhoods or on certain streets. But, in some areas there are very large celebrations that are open to the public and visitors are welcomed.

It begins with a group of neighbors and friends who visit each other’s homes, re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to spend the night. The processions can be held in churches or in the streets. The participants carry lit candles and a child dressed as an angel usually leads the procession. Other children pull a wagon that has a nativity scene in it.

At St. Gabriel in Windsor Mill, Maryland, my parish, we have children dressed as Mary and Joseph and they carry images of Mary and Joseph as they knock on doors asking for lodging. A choir of pilgrims (parishioners) stays outside with Mary and Joseph “singing” for lodging.  Another choir is at the home of the family who has volunteered to host the night; the other homes visited have responded that “there is no room.”  Finally, after some pleading, Mary and Joseph are admitted to the host home.

In some locations, the word “posadas” is synonymous with “parties” (fiesta). These fiestas are given every night for nine nights during the celebration leading up to Christmas Day. In my parish we have a piñata every night, with bags of gifts for the children and a light supper for all the pilgrims.

On the ninth day—Christmas Eve—everyone gathers at a specific house where Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging is recreated at the door of each room. Then, on the stroke of midnight, the hostess of the house leads Mary and Joseph to a table that has been prepared. Images of Mary and Joseph are placed on this table and the feasting begins.

An essential part of the Las Posadas party is a piñata for the children. This piñata is usually in the shape of a star to represent the one that guided the three kings on their search to find Jesus.

The last piñata of the Christmas season is broken on Christmas Eve when the people dress the image of the baby Jesus in satin clothes and place him in a manger; they sing songs to help him sleep.  Then, they continue the celebration for another several hours.

Reflection: Are we letting Jesus into our hearts and sharing “the good news” during this Christmas season?

Accepting God’s Plan – A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

By Sister Kathleen Lehner

“Drop down dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior.” (Is. 45:8)

Can you wholeheartedly offer yourself as a servant of God?

The scene that the Church offers us to contemplate on this last Sunday of Advent is extraordinary. Mary was a young maiden, fully aware of her Jewish faith and ancestry. When the Angel Gabriel appeared to her she was startled, but she recognized that this was a visitation from heaven.

Mary asked a question for clarification and the answer assured her that the power of God would guide her throughout her life. This grace enabled her to accept her role in God’s plan for our salvation.

Centuries earlier, King David had ideas of his own for establishing God’s Kingdom. He thought he could build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant, the visible sign of God’s Presence among the Jewish People. God rejected the plan at that time but promised that David’s house and Kingdom would endure forever.

God’s plan is far beyond our comprehension, but it includes each of us. We are each to play our part. Gently, and interiorly, God reaches out to us and invites us to add our unique contribution. When we accept, we are empowered to carry out our role in the salvation of the world. When we live our lives not for our own dreams alone, but cognizant that we are part of a plan designed by God for the good of all creation, we contribute our unique offering.

Do you fully realize that you are a part of God’s plan?

Can you wholeheartedly accept God’s invitation to you?

With Joyful Voices – A Reflection for the Third Week of Advent

By Sister Agnesine Seluzicki, MHSH

On this third Sunday of Advent we are greeted with exalted cries of REJOICE! With voices from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are called to celebrate, to rejoice.  Isaiah proclaims, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord…”  We hear Mary sing out, “My soul rejoices in my God…”  And Paul joins this chorus with “Rejoice in the Lord always…again I say, rejoice” Why such jubilation?  Because, as Paul explains, “…the Lord is near.”

The promise has been fulfilled and yet in its fulfillments we still find unfinished business.  In Jesus, God came to be with us, to walk among us, to bring hope and peace and justice to an aching humanity.  Therein lies the agenda for each of us.  John the Baptist, in this Sunday’s liturgy responds to those who ask who he is by stating, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”  In our Baptism, each of us has been given a mandate.  We are to be a voice, a voice like that of John, announcing the day of the Lord.

All that God asks of us is to use the voice that is ours at this moment in our lives.  It can be a strong, vibrant voice, or that of someone who has borne the heat of the day and can hardly speak beyond a whisper.  All God asks is that you allow yourself to be the voice through which God enables someone to experience today that “the Lord is near.”

That voice can be a smile of affirmation, a nod of approval and encouragement.  It can be a kind word or act.  Then, there is that phone call or email that you have been putting off.  Whatever it is, allow yourself to be a voice that prepares the way for the peace, love, joy and hope that Jesus has come to bring.

A Time to Prepare – A Reflection for the Second Week of Advent

By Charlene Dunn*

When the Jesuit pioneers came to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay they met the Algonquin Indians and set about converting them.   The Jesuits successfully compiled a dictionary which translated English into Algonquin and back again. 

They found that the Algonquin had no word for “time.”  To them, time was a concept witnessed by natural events.  There were sunrises, full moons and winters.  The Indians’ lives were measured by creation itself—completely in tune—like one dance from beginning to end.  At some point the Indians were introduced to time as a measure, both finite and eternal. 

We experience the same dilemma with what we are taught in the Scriptures. Peter tells us that, to the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day. The Lord, however, is not confined as we are by the temporal. God is eternal while we are finite; we have a beginning and an end. God is immeasurable. We are measured. God is timeless. We are timed. God is limitless. We are limited. God invites us to share in eternal life.

To teach us how to cross into this timelessness, Jesus came among us for a finite wink of time.  Sadly, we were not there; but, Jesus will come to us again and we believe this because he told us so.  Humankind has been waiting for his return since his ascension into heaven nearly two thousand years ago.  When will he come?  He will come when we have prepared his way.

I believe that God loves us all, each and everyone the same.  Jesus teaches us that we must love one another as he has loved us.  More than ever, I believe that we are called upon to witness God’s love.  We begin by never questioning the depth of God’s love for us, because in that truth comes all the strength, wisdom and surrender necessary to be instrumental in hastening the second coming of Jesus. 

We must frequently remind ourselves that we are in the presence of God and that Christ is within us as we go about our daily mission.  And, we must recognize not only our faults, but also the acts of love we do to further God’s kingdom on earth.  Witnessing God’s love does not always come easy, so when we acknowledge to ourselves even small  successes, we learn to become better at it. 

Reflection:  What have I done today to prepare the way for Jesus to come again?

*Charlene Dunn is a long-time friend of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.