Jesus in My Travel Mug

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year is a thermal travel mug from that ubiquitous coffee chain. You know the one: they seem to have a branch on every third street corner, and if you were to train a powerful telescope on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, I’m sure you’d espy their logo right next to the American flag and Neil Armstrong’s footprints.

I clutch my new thermal travel mug tightly in my left hand each time I leave the house; it contains piping hot coffee to sustain me as I drive the roads of central New Jersey from home to church to assignment to hospital and back again. “Fill ‘er up!” I think each morning as I pour the coffee to its brim in preparation for the day ahead.

Often the roads I travel upon hold many surprises: a sudden stop, a bump, or a pothole often makes the hot coffee spill from the mug onto my clothes. Unless I’m sporting a navy blue or black blouse that day, I carry its mark (and “Eau de Colombian Roast” scent) all day. The spill during the turbulent journey lets everyone know who I am: an unabashed lover of coffee.

A priest friend of mine once told me it takes about 15 minutes for a host to dissolve in the human body; for those 15 minutes, you become a tabernacle, carrying the body of Christ within you wherever you go. Then I thought, aren’t our souls always tabernacles for Jesus’ love, our own faith-filled travel mugs which accompany us wherever we go?

If we acknowledge His love for us, a few sudden stops, bumps, or potholes on the road of life need not worry us. Our faith can be filled to the brim without worry of it growing tepid, and pouring it out upon others would be a blessing, not a mark of shame. A spill during the turbulent journey can make everyone know who you are: an unabashed lover of God.

Fill ‘er up!

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The Day You Know Why

It’s that time again: time to look back at what you have accomplished, and to look forward at your goals for the year ahead. First, allow me a few minutes for a quick summary of my adventures and lessons learned in God’s vineyard in 2011.

Writing for the Catholic press is never dull; the stories I covered this year led me closer to God though often far from the inside of a church. During my work for two central Jersey Catholic newspapers….

  • I’ve spent St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish at a Gael Scoil, Columbus Day with Italian dancers from Sicily, and Pentecost with a fervent group of Charismatics;
  • I’ve spoken with priests and religious, both brand-new and quite seasoned, to learn the secrets of their loving relationships with God and His people;
  • I’ve walked miles on the streets of Washington D.C. with thousands eager to show their love for the pre-born, and mourned with others in cemeteries that embrace the remains of those gone to their final reward;
  • I’ve learned lessons on faith from senior citizens and children, clergy and married couples, the deaf and musicians, wise professors and (God help me) puppets;
  • I’ve spoken with administrators and teachers whose investment in the lives of their students will give the youth a fine foundation for their Catholic adulthood;
  • I’ve covered baseball, basketball, soccer, track and cheerleading (yet a challenge to my editor for a skeeball competition remains unanswered).

 

In my role as cantor, I’ve sung at weddings where people have cried and at funerals where they have laughed; woven hymns and octavos into the tapestry of scripture and homilies at nearly 150 Sunday liturgies; and watched Catholicism survive the New Roman Missal mass responses. (The one drawback is that I’ve climbed far too many choir loft staircases for these complaining 51-year-old knees.)

Through all the unbalanced meals consumed at the computer while writing or behind the wheel while driving between churches, the heavenly food I have consumed has nourished me abundantly. My soul was ever filled with joy, even if my stomach was not.

I read a recent interview with the new Essex County Big Brothers CEO, Carlos Lejnieks. The never-idle dynamo is transforming that organization one volunteer at a time and enriching the lives of the needy youth of north Jersey. When queried by the reporter for the reason he worked so tirelessly at his job, Lejnieks gave a simple answer. “There are two important days in your life,” he observed. “The day you are born, and the day you know why.”

Over the course of my life, and especially this past year, I have learned my own “why”: to seek God in his many guises and share the joy I find through my singing, through my writing for the Catholic press, and even through my standing here upon this electronic soapbox (though, to be honest, most laundry soap doesn’t come in boxes anymore but instead in those giant plastic jugs with a spout, and they are too lopsided to stand upon….. but I digress.)

Using my talents to further His plan for my life gives me inner peace and irrepressible joy. My wish for you this New Year is to find that same joy in your own “why”. As one of those great new concluding rites implore “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Thanks be to God, and onward into 2012!

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A Slower-Paced Christmas Eve

Mark it: 2011 was the year society shattered the pretense of any Christmas reverence or good taste.

Department stores, having whittled away at the Thanksgiving feast for years, finally broke the pre-dawn Friday barrier to shoppers to swing open their doors and cash registers even earlier: on the holiday itself. Frenzied shoppers left the warmth of family and friends for a heated pursuit of gifts for those very same people they had just left.

A few of my ambitious neighbors began their holiday celebrations early as well. One family was outside stringing lights and positioning giant inflatable figurines even as I returned from my brother’s home Thanksgiving evening. The second candle on my Advent wreath was still unlit, but their home’s electric meter was whirling quickly as an illuminated Winnie the Pooh, Santa, and gingerbread men fluttered amongst the light-wrapped pines on the front lawn.

“At least they’ve remembered the Christ child,” I thought as I spied a small wooden nativity scene in amongst the secular figures, then blinked in disbelief at the tall sentinels posted nearby. Apparently these good folk own a different version of the Bible than I, for my St. Joseph edition of Luke’s gospel neglected to mention the shepherds or Magi resemble four-foot, strobe-lit candy canes.

Another neighbor couldn’t wait for Christmas to open his gift. Standing mutely at the curb last week was an empty box from a 64-inch, flat-screen, high-definition LCD television with surround sound (complete with the new brain probe option to determine and program favorite shows, sold separately). Perched alongside the box, in mute reproach, was the family’s prior model: a large, faux-wood encased console television awaiting its final trip to the town dump. Its owner must have felt a pang of guilt and wished it to find a new home, for the small sign taped to the screen read simply:

“Works, Just Old”.

Hey, I turned 51 years old today and well know that feeling; I might take a walk over there and ask to borrow that sign to wear around my neck.

Though my front lawn does not resemble a secularized amusement park like my neighbors, I cannot cast stones; I, too, often rush through my preparations for our Lord’s arrival. It is all too easy for my Christmas Eve to devolve into a race from church to church without any thought or spirituality. This year, my resolution is to breathe deeply, savor each distinct liturgy as it unfolds, and remember, as always, it is not about the lights but about the Light of the World.

With that, let me walk away from the light of this computer screen and prepare myself for the beauty of this evening’s Masses. I wish each of you a blessed, peaceful Christmas! Rejoice! He has come.

(Early breaking news: The race through the season continues. My friend Lisa in Texas just texted me: “At department store: Christmas out, Valentine’s Day on shelves!”)

 

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God’s Christmas Kindness

Assembly of the large three-ring binder of music for my five-cantored-Masses marathon this weekend, complete with new-text cheater pew cards which still do not prevent a retro “and also with you” from leaving my lips on occasion?

Check!

Filling of the car’s tank so I can do the ping-pong commute from my urban parish to my suburban parish, and back, and forth, and back, repeatedly over an eighteen-hour period tomorrow night and Sunday morning?

Check again!

The Leslie larder chock-filled with food other than leftover Christmas cookies from work?

C’mon: you know me better than that!

I needed to take time away from my liturgical preparations this morning to seek some healthier nutrition, and found the gifts of God’s humorous touch and Christmas kindness exist right in my local supermarket.

I must admit: I entered the store not in a Christmas frame of mind. The parking lot was full, carts were difficult to find, and my back still ached from an ungainly step- twist-and-lift maneuver I executed eight days ago. (This may appear to be bad timing, it being Christmas, but the important thing is that my voice is unaffected and I can sing clearly. Also, it may well be a sign from God to pursue a career in cruise ship entertainment between Christmas and Lent. Since I cannot stand erect, but rather lean at a 30-degree angle, this could be advantageous were the ship to cross stormy seas.)

Having immersed myself in spirit-filled hymns and joyous Christmas carols these past few weeks, I welcomed the opportunity to hear some secular holiday music over the supermarket’s public address system. But the wizards in the courtesy booth had other plans. I believe the CD they played was from the “Christmas on Acid” series, for we shoppers were subjected to the worst selection of music ever compiled.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was caterwauled by a mis-matched duo who might well have been Louis Armstrong and Betty Boop; a singer impersonating Elvis impersonating a gospel singer (in his “fat” years voice) was on the next track. Der Bingle, Dean-o and way too many soprano bimbettes and violins ruined yet another Christmas classic (three of us shoppers reflexively grabbed boxes of antacids as we were subjected to the painful vocal rendition.) My little secular music break in the day had not materialized, yet I was uplifted; grinning at the absurd cacophony, I caught the eye of another shopper and we both burst into laughter.

The mood was contagious; other shoppers chuckled as the aural assault continued and began to speak to one another, much like soldiers on the front line of a battle commiserate in pain. A young girl bent over to retrieve a dropped box of cereal for an old man and uttered a hearty “Merry Christmas” as they belittled the CD, while two others stopped their own pursuit of food to find a can of dry soup for a young mother and told her to enjoy the holidays. God’s boundless Christmas kindness circulated the store despite the dreadful music; as a young girl leaned head and shoulders into a stand-up freezer to grab the last two boxes of mixed vegetables with shell macaroni for me, the two of accompanied Alvin the Chipmunk as he begged, “I still want a H-u-u-u-u-la H-o-o-o-o-p!”

As I lift my voice with multiple choirs and congregations in praise to God this weekend, the ethereal hymns and octavos we sing will fill the churches and might inspire others to recognize God’s kindness. I’ll also remember the gift of laughter and spirituality I experienced today in the supermarket and praise Him all the louder…. sans hula hoops.

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The Great St. Nicholas Shoe Caper

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra well-known for his piety and zeal. His reputation for secret gift giving became the model for the modern-day Santa Claus; a tradition in many European countries is for children to set out their shoes on the Eve of the feast with a carrot or hay for the saint’s donkey. The little ones awaken to find their footwear filled with chocolate coins or candies if they have been good that year, or a small branch or switch if they have not. (Thanks be to God that I was born in 20th century America, or I might well have accumulated enough wood to build my own home by age 15.)

After high school I briefly attended a small, all-female Catholic college out of state. One of the Pennsylvania Dutch region school’s beloved traditions was the observance of the St. Nicholas feast complete with shoes outside the dorm rooms. Rumor had it the senior class women were the modern-day St. Nicholas-ettes who filled the shoes with candies, and many of the girls enjoyed the modern spin on this ancient tradition.

Not this native Jersey girl. This overly-engineered cuteness made me roll my eyes, but I succumbed to peer pressure and left my scuffed loafers outside my door just the same. I looked left and right down my hallway: little leather and wooden clones sat obediently outside every door. Why would all these women, striving to be individuals and hone their unique, God-given talents, want to walk around shod exactly alike, I wondered.

As the wheels turned in my head, a phrase came to mind. Not words of wisdom from the Bible or a scholarly treatise, but ones from a movie I had seen the preceding summer: Animal House. Just before the big Homecoming parade scene, the hapless character Otter utters the immortal words, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” With this ignoble escapade as inspiration, the Great St. Nicholas Shoe Caper sprang, fully formed, into my brain.

That night I called the rooms of my three closest, similarly cynical friends and asked them to meet me in the lounge at the end of the hall at 4 a.m. “Bring your laundry basket,” I told them mysteriously. Always up for a late-night adventure, my friends complied. Though my cause was not nearly so noble as that of St. Joan of Arc fighting the English or even Moses leading the Israelites through the newly-parted Red Sea, I strategized our small quartet of rebels carefully nonetheless.

“Laura, take your laundry basket, gather up all the shoes on the first floor, run up to the third floor, and lay two pairs down outside those doors,” I began.  “Cindy, go get all the second floor’s shoes and run them up to the fourth floor.  Beth, do the same on the third floor, but place them all outside the fifth floor’s doors. I’ll handle the fifth and the first floor’s shoes.”  We even remembered to move our own shoes down three rooms to avoid suspicion yet promote rapid discovery.

For the next hour, my team of miscreants scurried about, softly giggling as we passed each other in the stairwell carrying plastic laundry baskets overflowing with shoes; we knew we needed to hurry in order that the seniors bearing candies would not discover our plot. Our consciences were clear: this was relocation of footwear, not theft, so the eighth Commandment was unbroken. To the casual observer, all was well: each room’s entry was adorned with two matched pairs of shoes… but not the pairs that belonged to the room’s occupants.

St. Nicholas Day dawned just a few hours later. At 8 a.m. the four of us, huddled in my dorm room with our ears pressed to the door, heard the same scenario unfold over and over again:

  • Sound of door opening
  • Sound of young woman uttering some variation of “Ooh, look at the candies in the shoes!  How cute!”
  • Sound of same young woman saying quizzically, “[NAME OF ROOMMATE], which of these pairs of shoes are yours? And where are MINE?”
  • Sound of that roommate walking to door and saying, “NEITHER pair is mine; I thought they were YOURS!”
  • Sound of another door opening
  • (Lather, rinse, repeat conversation…)

The stairwell soon resounded with the sound of running feet and shouts from barefoot women as they realized their shoes had sprouted wings during the night. A few of the more enterprising young Catholic students teamed up to find their missing footwear. “I think I saw a pair of size 6 red pumps on the fifth floor,” one shouted. “And there’s black patent leathers on the first floor,” another one cried. My friends snuck from my room, collected their shoes, and headed off to class with no one the wiser at their roles as accomplices.

And then, just as I thought I would escape unscathed, I discovered the good St. Nicholas had gotten the last laugh. I walked three doors down to collect my own shoes… and found an empty doorsill. The kindly Bishop had indeed delivered a “switch” at my disobedience; my shoes were switched from their hiding place, and it took me a week of searching (and attending class in flip-flops) before they surfaced again.

Lesson learned, St. Nicholas. Readers, may your day be as joy-filled and sweet!

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All My Bags are Packed, I’m Ready to Go!

Vacations always excite me. The prospect of experiencing new sights, new sounds, new languages makes me almost giddy with anticipation. I prepare my bags early, with a list to guide me, and make sure I am ready for every contingency. (The day the airlines instituted surcharges for overweight bags was one of the saddest days of my life!)

This weekend I am taking a little journey, a journey of faith. For this particular journey, I don’t need an airline ticket, cell phone charger, or extra pair of shoes, for I’ll be in the same places I spend each Saturday night and Sunday morning: the two churches where I cantor. Advent begins, and with it all the new prayers and music of the updated Roman Missal. 

My choir music bags are filled with new octavos and laminated prayer response cards (a.k.a. Mass cheat sheets); my heart is filled with the anticipation of unlocking the mysteries of faith in a new way. The new sights, new sounds, new languages we will experience this Advent should excite us in new ways. This journey’s destination is familiar: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will bring us closer to Christ as it has always done. The route may be a bit unfamiliar to clergy and congregation alike, but the prayer cards, hymnals, and new Missal will guide us.

Relax, have fun, and rejoice as you embark on this new journey of faith. Make sure to keep your liturgical tray tables in the upright and locked position, welcome your fellow passengers, and enjoy the best meal you’ll ever have: the Eucharist. Updated Roman Missal, you are cleared for take-off!!

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Triumphant Peace

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite secular yet faith-based holidays of the year: food, family and fun abound, and there’s no fretting over gifts save those that fit inside a pie plate or upon a ceramic platter.

Yesterday I joined with my church family at the early Mass, then kept my cellphone warm with round-robin texting of Thanksgiving well-wishes before the trip to my brother’s house for dinner. Our family and friends feasted upon the fastidiously-fashioned foodstuffs… (okay, I’ll stop; apparently tryptophan provokes alliteration as well as sleepiness). The ten of us ate far too much of the lovingly-prepared food, then played board games with the children as the televised football games blared from the living room. Thanks be to God for family, friends, and food.

This morning, I indulged in my favorite post-Thanksgiving activity: sloth. I sat at the kitchen table with a mug of hot coffee and a fresh bagel as I leafed through a stack of stale newspapers that had accumulated while I had worked overtime at all three jobs this past week. An interview with a 91-year-old woman instructor of a writing class at a senior care center in West Orange caught my eye.

Worried that her long life had been a failure, the nonagenarian nonetheless decided to record her thoughts and discovered a new purpose for her remaining days. She taught her fellow residents that each life has value; if one penned recollections or future plans, one might find “triumphant peace” in their daily actions, the woman maintained.

That phrase resonates in me: triumphant peace. Like sunshine through windows lining a dark hallway, it is warmth and light and a beacon to travel onward in confidence. I experience that fulfilling, joyful yet steadying presence of God as I sing or write, and I thank Him for the opportunities He has given me to share those talents with others.

This Sunday marks the start of Advent. As the Church begins the period of longing, and as you light the purple and pink candles on the wreath week by week, may you find that triumphant peace readying your heart for the coming of the babe in the manger, our Savior.

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