Tag Archives: God

Confessions of a Novena Skeptic

MattPMy friend Matt (Rounding30) was recently diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.  As far as cancer goes, this is by far the “best kind of cancer” one could have.  He has been assured by doctors and survivors that Hodgkins is curable.  He is in excellent health with no real symptoms (other than a big lump on his neck).  Still in the early stages, Matt has none the less reached out to friends far and wide asking for their prayers.  Matt specifically asked all of his friends to pray this nine day novena to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.  Today is Day 9 that I’ve been praying for Matt.

What’s a novena?  Basically, a novena is a series of prayers, usually recited for a prescribed number of days (typically 9) where we ask the saints – our great cloud of witnesses, those whom we know to be with God in heaven – to plead our cause on our behalf.  We ask the saints to pray with us and for us.

I used to be really suspicious of novenas.  To be honest, I still AM a little suspicious of novenas.  They seem a little too “hocus pocus” for me.  All too often I’ve seen novenas that are akin to email chain letters promising all your dreams come true if just you read these saccharine sweet words aloud and then forward them to exactly seven of your friends including the person who sent this to you.

Prayer isn’t magic.

Prayer always begins and ends with our relationship with God.  The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind.  Rather, we place ourselves before God in prayer in order that God can transform our hearts and draw us closer to Him.  After all, God already knows what is best for us.  God is God, and we are not.

For the last three weeks, Matt has gone public with his fears (and sighs of relief) over complicated medical procedures.  An accomplished journalist and natural story teller, his regular blog updates are not only a great way to keep friends informed, but perhaps a bit of therapy at the end of the day as well. He’s been incredibly forthcoming about the strength he finds in knowing that hundreds of people are lifting him up in prayer.  Honestly, Matt’s testimony could make even the greatest skeptic a firm believer in the power of prayer!

In some ways, asking the saints to pray for us is no different than putting a shout out via our favorite social media channel and receiving a rousing affirmation and promise of prayers from our friends.  Who doesn’t need a little help from their friends every once in a while?  Especially if that friend is also close friends with God!

Perhaps there are still a few novena skeptics out there who need a bit of convincing.  Well, despite my own disbelief, I know with great certainty that the communion of saints will plead our cause to God!  Here’s my living proof:

therese-as-a-childSt. Therese’s mission was to make God loved!  She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”  This young woman once dreamed of becoming a great missionary and even hoped to die a martyr!  Sidelined by a long illness, she spent her days supporting the missions by her prayer.  St. Therese died from tuberculosis at age 24, and today she is considered one of the great patron saints of missionary causes.  (You can also watch this great story of her life here.)

Many of you know that I’ve been traveling to Nicaragua for over twelve years to volunteer with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation.  Before our very first campus ministry trip in 2006, I prayed this novena to St. Therese of Lisiuex.  Many people have reported receiving roses upon completion of a novena to St. Therese.  I was wary about the flowers and told myself that I was only asking Therese’s assistance for the sake of our mission.  I did not tell anyone about this, and on the last day of the novena, I happened to attend a luncheon.  Afterwards, someone stopped me and gave me one of the table centerpieces (filled with roses!) and said, “I thought you might like to have this.”  All these years later, those Nicaragua trips are still going strong, and that was not the first time St. Therese sent me flowers!

XavierHaitiSt. Francis Xavier is another great patron saint of missionaries.  St. Francis Xavier was a Jesuit priest and one of the first followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  He was first sent as a missionary to India and later ministered to the people of Southeast Asia and Japan.  His right arm (the hand he used to bless and baptize converts) is preserved at Il Gesu Church in Rome, which I visited this past summer.  My fondness for praying with St. Francis Xavier was completely accidental yet quite providential!

Several years ago, we had to cancel our Nicaragua mission trip due to a conflict of dates.  At the same time, we were struggling to work out the details of a potential trip to Haiti instead.  During my summer retreat, I stumbled upon this novena to St. Francis Xavier.  Shortly after returning from retreat, some important logistical details began to fall into place.  Not only did we send mission groups to both Nicaragua AND Haiti that year, but the village where we stayed in Haiti had a church named St. Francis Xavier.  Coincidence?  I think not!

Last spring, I went to visit my sister for a long weekend.  While I was there, I met a friend of my sister who told me two almost-unbelievable stories about praying a 54-day novena to the Blessed Mother.  This novena involves praying the rosary every day for 54 days. (No small feat for anyone in my humble opinion!)

mary-icon-bulgariaI had never met this woman before, and she had no idea of the personal situation in my life that was already unfolding.  I’d been anxious about some things at work, and I was uncertain about where to turn.  I shared very little of my story with her, but she did not hesitate to share her novena stories with me!

She warned me that the graces of this novena are quite unimaginable.  From her own experience, it was clear that God had answered her prayers in some utterly surprising ways.  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need, yet she assured me, these are the kind of graces you will receive from this novena!

To be honest, I’ve never particularly enjoyed praying the rosary, and I could feel my novena skepticism kicking in!  I went online to do a little research about the 54-day novena, and I came across this commentary which confirmed my own sensibilities.  It reiterated what I have always ascribed to – that there is no “magic formula”.  This is not about saying all the right words, in the right order, at the exact time every day.  What is most important is that we give our hearts to God.  (And in this case, ask Mary to pray with us, too!)

RosaryBraceletIt’s funny, for someone who doesn’t “like” praying the rosary, I always keep a rosary in my purse!  (How’s that for superstitious hocus pocus?!)  I prayed the rosary on the airplane ride home that night and continued to do so for the next 53 days.  Even on the most hectic days, I would look forward to spending this time in prayer and experienced a tremendous amount of inner calm while I prayed.  I remember saying once, “God, if the only grace I receive from this novena is 20 minutes of peace a day, I will take it!”

In the midst of this novena, I learned that my position at work was being eliminated.

After the immediate shock wore off, the peace I experienced was almost exponential!  I haven’t shared this with many people, because it still seems absurd to me that someone could lose their job (a job that I loved dearly!) and experience this kind of consolation. Six months later, I’m still searching for full-time employment.  I’m also taking Spanish classes, doing some freelance writing, and considering a long-term volunteer project with our Nicaragua partners.  And I continue to experience a peace and a freedom that is beyond my understanding!

There is certainly no comparison between losing one’s job and acquiring a cancer diagnosis.  Although, I think there is a particular gravitas and emotional strain that uniquely results from either one.  Upon confirming the doctor’s initial suspicions, Matt posed this rhetorical question on his blog:

“Who gets a cancer diagnosis and spends the day feeling grateful?
This guy, apparently.”

Not unlike the affirmation I experienced after praying with St. Therese or St. Francis or the Blessed Mother – it’s called grace my friend! It is nothing less than God’s unabashed love for you – reminding you that you’re exactly where you are meant to be.  We aren’t always able to see God working in our lives in such obvious ways.  What a gift when it’s right there for us to see!  Time and time again, I’m reminded that faith is not about easy answers or magical solutions.  It is about trusting in the deeper mysteries of God.

Finally, while we’re on the subject, one important note….

I’m sure that many (if not all) of us have lost family members and other loved ones to cancer or other horrible diseases.  Good and faithful people die of cancer every day, even those whose friends and family never ceased praying for them!  God hears all of our prayers, even if God does not answer them in the ways we would want.

joan-of-arc2I have some dear friends who lost their teenage son to cancer several years ago.  Near the end of his life, it became clear that a “cure” was highly improbable.  Their family and friends continued to rally and pray for a miracle.  With great trust in God’s mercy, my friends affirmed what we believe as people of faith – we believe in the resurrection!  Death was not the end for Jesus, and it is not the end for us either!  My friends knew that long days of sadness and mourning awaited them, but they were never without hope – even in the face of death.

I was so impressed by what they shared on their blog, and I will try to summarize it here.  They said:  We know that many of you are praying for a miracle.  We are humbled by your prayers that our son would experience a physical cure.  Please keep those prayers coming!  But sometimes the greatest “miracle” is being able to catch a glimpse of the impossible work of God that remains hidden most of the time.  God can use the worst tragedy (cancer, brain tumors, even death!) to accomplish the miraculous: reconciling alienated family members, forging a bond between siblings, or inspiring renewed faith in those who have left the church or doubt the existence of God.  We are confident that a miracle awaits us, even if a cure for cancer does not!  (Inspired by their son’s courage, they continue to fight for a cure.)

I think about my friend Matt and the journey he has undertaken. Thanks to modern medicine, I have no doubt that he will experience a complete CURE to this unfortunate disease.  My hope is that his upcoming bout with chemo will be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience, and life can return to “normal” in a few short months.  Although, I suspect he will be forever changed by coming face to face with the reality of cancer, and I can already see his life transformed by the tremendous outpouring of love and support from his friends.

I know Matt to be a person of deep faith.  And I know that God is faithful to all who put their trust in Him. I have no doubt that we will soon be celebrating the life of a young man who is cancer free!  And I am confident that God will use this time in Matt’s life to accomplish the miraculous.


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The Gifts We Thought We Didn’t Need

Last night, we celebrated my final farewell at the Sheil Catholic Center.  There have been many opportunities to say good-bye to people one-on-one, but it was important to see students in this “official” capacity one last time. Thanks to everyone who joined us, for your kind words, and making the night special!  These were my remarks.

Gift Box

I have a favorite quote from Will Willimon, a professor and former dean of the Divinity School at Duke University. Willimon says:

This is often the way God loves us:  with gifts we thought we didn’t need
which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.

I’m really grateful to be back at Sheil tonight for this official farewell. As many of you know, I left Sheil very unexpectedly at the end of June. Since then I’ve been spending a lot of time traveling, seeing family, and catching up with friends and professional colleagues. Two quick stories:

I have a friend who just turned 40. She and her husband recently learned that she is pregnant-again. Needless to say, having another baby was not part of their “plan”.  She said to me, “We weren’t ready for this!  But by the grace of God and a lot of prayer, we realize what a GIFT this new life is for our family.”  This is often how God loves us, with gifts we thought we didn’t need ….

I have another friend, a professional acquaintance, who runs a ministry for homeless people who struggle with addictions. I asked him, “How exactly did you get to be director of such a great organization?” He laughed to himself and said, “I spent the first three years out of college binge drinking and couch surfing. I finally grew up, got sober, and someone gave me a second chance. I’m not proud of the mistakes I made, but by the grace of God I’m still sober. And 25 years later I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who are homeless and struggling to overcome their addictions.”  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need that transform us into people we never expected to be…

As I look back at 10 years of ministry at Sheil, I am incredibly grateful for all of it. There were plenty of moments along the way, where I thought to myself, “I’m not ready for this! And this wasn’t part of the plan! And I’m not always proud of the mistakes I made.” But this is often the way God loves us… 

As a campus minister I was invited into some really holy and privileged conversations with students. Students changing majors or discerning vocations, thinking about getting engaged or deciding to break up, the student who got accepted into graduate school and the one who didn’t, when a grandparent died or a mom was diagnosed with cancer, or sitting with a student in the hospital and the RA who had to call 911 over the weekend. All of this in the midst of classes, athletics, music recitals, and theatre productions. And retreats, small groups, service trips, and everything else that happens at Sheil.

It is really incredible to be with people in moments of joy and celebration and in times of heartache and confusion.  Every conversation, every service trip, every retreat, every event on campus, every moment of silence in the chapel is a gift that- welcome or not- God is using to transform us.  And I am certain that God is using all of this to transform me and prepare me for what is next!

In leaving Sheil, there is one thing that I have been reminded of over and over again – and that is how incredibly faithful God is. God has gifted this community with his presence, and God has given you (given us) the gift of one another.  I am confident that good things will continue to happen in my life, and in yours, and in the life of Sheil Catholic Center.

Thank you for letting me be a part of it for the past 10 years.  What a gift!

(Photo from Flickr Creative Commons)

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Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis

This week I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Dan Horan, O.F.M., author of Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis and creator of the popular blog by the same title DatingGod.org.

I have a great fondness for the Franciscans! My grade school and high school are still operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  My alma mater Briar Cliff University is run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa where I forged relationships with women religious who I still consider my earliest mentors and where I made great friends in the classroom, campus ministry office, and through community service events. Likewise, some of my favorite professors at Catholic Theological Union were connected to the Franciscans. My first foray into the publishing world was through Franciscan Media, and I am incredibly grateful for the support of many talented people there.

It should not come as a surprise then, that I was excited to read Dating God.  (Full disclosure: Dan and I shared the same editor at Franciscan Media, and the marketing department provided me with a complimentary copy of the book!)

Dating God is the perfect primer on Franciscan spirituality.  Even as someone immersed in Franciscan environments from a young age, there was still plenty to discover!  It also affirmed how much I had absorbed without ever realizing it.  If I am completely honest (even a bit embarrassed to say), I primarily associated Franciscan spirituality with the love and care for God’s creation and the blessing of animals that typically accompanies the feast of St. Francis.

True Franciscan spirituality, however, extends far beyond the affection we feel for our pets or a chance encounter with God while watching a summer sunset. As the title “Dating God” suggests, Franciscan spirituality is deeply relational. God strongly desires to be in relationship with all that God has created. Once we become engaged in this loving relationship with the one who formed us into being, then other elements of the Franciscan charism begin to take shape.  This includes ones dedication to community, a deep reverence for the Word of God, contemplative prayer, and acts of charity and works of justice on behalf of the poor.

The image of dating, which comes with a gentle warning from Dan to not over extend the metaphor, is used to describe the journey of encountering God, coming to know ourselves, falling in love, and a lifetime of commitment responding to God’s call.  It is a relationship that is best nourished when we intentionally spend time together, take time to truly listen to one another, seek forgiveness, and draw close to one another in prayer.  Dan describes the nuances of the God-to-human dynamic, relating it in much the same way that our human relationships take shape.

As I look back, I see the how the Franciscan sisters and priests of my youth nurtured my education, instructed me in the ways of service, and modeled the importance of community – and this Franciscan charism of living and loving in relationship with God and neighbor all makes so much sense now!

In my conversation with Dan this week, he admitted that his natural inclination leans toward more scholarly writing.  I think even the occasional visitor to his website would agree! Already, the Dating God blog has become a forum for hot topics and news worthy events of the day.  He openly encourages healthy dialogue and welcomes charitable commentary whether people agree with him or not.  Dan Horan is sure to be an important voice in our Church in the years to come.

The attraction, however, of Dating God (the book) is that it contains all the essential qualities of a great spiritual memoir.  He approaches his writing with honest self-reflection and a willingness to let readers into his own struggles and doubts.  He incorporates the writings of great thinkers like Francis, Clare, Bonaventure, Merton, Scotus and others who have influenced his life’s direction.  He writes with the freshness of a 20-something still immersed in graduate studies, at a time when vocational identity and career path is still taking shape. His reflections are rich with self-discovery as he seeks to make meaning out of his life experiences and time spent in prayer.  He beautifully weaves together age-old wisdom with contemporary references to Facebook, Wii, and Star Wars.

As he sorts out his own relationship with God, Dan draws readers into greater reflection on their own spiritual journey. Each chapter is tied together with a bullet pointed summary and questions for personal reflection.  No matter where you are on the relational journey – single, searching, seriously dating, married, divorced, widowed, ordained, or religiously professed – this is a great book for anyone who hopes to be more deeply engaged in their relationship with God.

As a testament to Dan’s Franciscan charism of living in loving relationship with others, my Catholic world became even smaller after our meeting.  Dan and I were surprised to discover that we have several friends and acquaintances in common.  I suppose one could attribute this to the small-world quality of the Catholic church, especially when it is merged with the even-smaller world of Catholic publishing.  At its best, I believe it is a testament to the way Dan forms and forges relationships with everyone he meets. Which, as I am learning, is a very Franciscan thing to do!

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