Our church has no crying room, so parents with fidgety, exuberant or otherwise discomfiting youngsters have to be creatively calming in the pews or parents must choose self-exile to the vestibule. One young father, with a teary, backward-facing toddler hoisted to his shoulder,  stumbled on a solution. Standing in the aisle between the end of the pew and the wall, dad turned to face the altar. Suddenly, the baby girl fell silent, her gaze locked onto the eyes that stared back at her from the nearest stained glass window: those of Therese of Lisieux.

St. Theresa of Liseux
Image appears on the site of St. Charles Boromeo in Picayune, Mississippi.

Then dad turned around, perhaps to see what his little girl was looking at. The spell was broken. A cry was uttered. The toddler pointed back at St. Therese and dad complied. Again content, the child renewed her silent eye-to-eye with the saint.

The little girl’s communion reminded me of my mother’s encounter with a saint. My mother was born and raised a Buddhist in Thailand. About a decade ago she started exhibiting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. She knew it, accepted it and with worried mind did all she could to prepare her family for the challenges ahead. It was during that time she told my dad of a dream she had of being on a near-empty strand with a river or the ocean nearby. The only other soul on the beach was a man with white hair. Mom said that while no words were spoken in the dream, the man told her his name was Clement and assured her that everything was going to be fine. That dream, that image brought her a great sense of peace and hope.

She related the dream to my dad and asked who this Clement might be. My dad was thunderstruck. St. Clement of Rome, a first century pope, was put to death by Emperor Trajan — tied to an anchor and drowned. The patron saint of mariners, Clement is often depicted with an anchor and in association with water. [Until then, Clement had never had a presence in a family that wears out the intercessory ears of Saints Anthony, Aquinas and More.] Why Clement? We will never know.

That incident rekindled my interest in how saints are depicted, especially in icons. A search led to a fellow blogger, Reinkat. An iconographer, Reinkat vividly describes the work: the inspiration, the prayers and struggles and most importantly, how the iconic can draw the faithful closer to the heart of God. Used to describe everything from movies, to celebrities and commercial logos, “iconic,” has lost its meaning. The beautiful works by Reinkat and others help return meaning and purpose to that which is spiritually iconic.

Which brings this post back to our church windows. These long, tall, jigsaw puzzles of colored glass and lead run from just above the floor to about seven or eight feet. They  feature nearly life-sized images of saints whose larger-than-life examples inspire us. The beauty of these images is that while abstracted, they are at our level, almost as if they walk among us. They are reminders that the sainted too were real people. Flawed people. Frustrated people. Faithful people. They are people like us, who went beyond the ordinary, who lived and died in their convictions. And through the  hands of artists, they draw us close.

Sometimes, it pays to look back

Advent is a time of looking forward — preparing one’s self for the feast of Christmas. However, after last night’s vigil Mass for the final Sunday of Advent, looking back paid off too.

For almost 24 hours, nature had soaked the state in a deluge that saw nearly 8 inches of rain fall in parts of the Arkansas Delta. The same system also spawned tornadoes in other parts of the state. When the heavy rain finally stopped, those leaving church were welcomed by a fiery orange sunset. En route to the parking lot,  paused on the steps to take a shot or two of the sunset with my iPhone (bottom photo). But something made me look back. And there over the church, the sky glowed with a luminous double rainbow.

The iPhone’s ‘pano’ setting sure  came in handy in trying to capture such a wide view. 
Fiery sunset
Fiery sunset with the old bell tower in silhouette. 

Hey! I’m working here.

Mass isn’t a passive event. While the celebrant, cantor, musician and lector  (not to mention Eucharistic ministers and altar servers and ushers) seem to be doing all the work, they shouldn’t be.  Mass, as a community celebration, takes effort. It takes work. Even says so in the Greek roots of the word “liturgy.”  So this 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, (or any Sunday) ramp up your participation. Work at it. Sing, join in the prayers, find the meaning and enjoy the moments. (don’t let it be time wasted)*

(To whom It may concern: No copyright infringement meant here. We would credit you for this etymology infographic if we could find who created it!)

*(So what brought this up? The photos below were the result of being distracted during Mass last weekend. Returning to the pew after Communion, my eye was grabbed by the image of Christ with open arms and the stained glass window that provided the light for the statue. Knowing the light was not going to last long, I fidgeted and kept glancing toward the room where both the window and statue were, hoping the light would still be there after the last “Thanks be to God.” It was.)

Stained glass window.
Stained glass to lift the spirits.
Statue of Jesus with open arms.
Welcoming gesture.

Gaudete Sunday

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the next-to-last Sunday in Advent. Advent, like Lent, is a time of introspection; a time to prepare the soul and mind. Advent encompasses four Sundays in anticipation of Christmas and Lent does the same before Easter.

During three of the Sundays in Advent and Lent, the priest wears violet vestments — a symbol of penance. Gaudete Sunday is one of two holidays in the Catholic calendar where rose vestments — which symbolize joy — are worn, the other being Laetare Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent. (A nice summary on liturgical colors can be found here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/LITCOLOR.HTM)

In the West, pink is a culturally difficult color. It’s OK for women, but often taboo for men. It takes a big man to wear rose, and they don’t come any bigger than B16. Biltrix has a great photo of Il Papa in his rose vestments. (In Thailand, pink has become associated with the king.)

A trend we’ve been seeing in the pews is parishioners embracing the colors of the season. At the Saturday vigil Mass, the pews were filled with men,  women and children who had worked rose or violet into their Sunday (or Saturday) best. It’s a powerful external symbol of the inner states that  Advent and Lent are meant to touch.

90 years

It’s hard to comprehend, but Mom would’ve been 90 years old yesterday. From her childhood in Bangkok to a suburban life in North Jersey and retirement in southern California, she packed so much into a life of 87 years.

2004 — A portrait before the Alzheimer’s took hold. Her eyes still speak to every joy and pain experienced in a life lived across two hemispheres.

It’s often said you don’t know much about people until they die. There’s a lot of truth to that.

We knew her as “Mom” after all. She was the one who walked you to school on that first day of kindergarten; the one who would hug you when your 5-year-old ego was bruised and you sat pouting in the corner. She comforted you when that cold made your nose so full you were sure each breath would be your last. Mom also made sure you didn’t fail to practice your clarinet or violin for at least 30 minutes a day or wash the dishes after dinner.

In her life before us, she was the one who ran around Bangkok raising money and scavenging much-needed equipment for agencies serving the disabled. She worked in hospitals and hospices comforting the dying, and farang (foreigners) who were far from home. She had ties with the United Nations and the World Health Organization. She knew people with titles like “princess” and “dame.”

She decided to take leave of her international life, marry dad and raise a family in a modest New Jersey suburb.

When she and Dad thought it was safe for us to be latchkey kids, she studied for her nursing boards and went back to work. She was a good boss who loved her work.

Those were external things we never really saw as kids.

What we did see was a woman who valued wisdom above all and learned from every experience and every moment. She had a remarkable capacity for forgiveness and never lost her sense of sanook, that wonderful Thai quality of seeking the positive in everything.

We will  never know the debt we owe her.

URSULINE SCHOOL — Mom, far left, poses with her class at her beloved Ursuline school in Bangkok. She had the highest praise and warmest memories of her time there, especially for the work the sisters did. I suspect Mom’s inspiration for her life of service was based on the role models she had at school. 
1953 — At age 31.