peace two candles

Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Big Ideas


When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.

Of Life and Death



Three deaths in ten days. That certainly got my attention. While none were family, each had touched a part of my life and it forced me to think about how often we impact the lives of those around us in ways we don’t always comprehend or even stop to consider. My son’s 16 year-old classmate who committed suicide, the 93 year-old priest I hadn’t seen in eighteen years, and the 57 year-old rockstar I knew only by his music, these three are the most unlikely combination and yet each touched my life in ways they never really knew.

I spent most of this semester trying to keep life and death confined to the five-page papers due in my ethics and bioethics classes. It’s not like I haven’t seen life and death up close and personal. I was raised being taught that death is merely a part of life, both are mystery and both are sacred. That makes losing someone I love an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. But as I listened to my much younger classmates talk about the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, I heard over and over that death is a right. And as a right, death is something that can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even inflicted. There was no room left for faith.

“Jack Kevorkian is the Rosa Parks or Dr. King of our generation,” declared one nursing senior with reverence in her voice while several other chimed in their agreement. I heard business majors argue that terminal patients should be encouraged to commit suicide to free up beds for patients who might recover and patients diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s should also consider suicide while they were still somewhat rational rather than become a burden to their families. Death has become cheap and sadly, in the process, so has life.

But what about life? And what about a right to life? Ah, yes that Right to Life movement sounds great on paper but, in the hands of a generation that has been more instilled with knowing their rights than with a deep faith, life has become just like any other right, meaning it can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even revoked. “Violent criminals,” one young man vehemently argued, “have given up their right to life because of their choices. So now they should die and we as a society should say how and when they die.”

There was little reverence for the mystery or sanctity of life or of death. It worries me that these are the people who will be making policy decisions in years to come. But I had papers to write and these were topics to be considered and weighed and analyzed but best left impersonal. Funny how life and death refuse to remain impersonal for very long.

In the last ten days, it was the blog of teenage girl that reminded me of the incredible darkness I have had to overcome. It was a funeral for a priest that brought home to me that it was the kindness, gentleness, and openness of someone who touched into my life for the briefest of times that gave me the hope to overcome that darkness. And it was the death of a rockstar that shook me more than I would have thought possible which forced me to see that it was his pursuit of his passion that had given me the soundtrack for much of my teenage years; music that came before the darkness fell and still evokes memories of carefree days of untainted happiness and music that came later that touched into emotions that I had no language to express.

My life right this very moment would be different if not for any one of them. That’s the thing about life, just being alive is an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. And that gives me cause to wonder how my actions, my words, my writings, my pursuit of my passions, how all of those aspects of me being me could influence people I may never know. That is not a right. That is mystery and that is grace.


For Bella, Fr. Emidio Gregori, and Prince. Requiescat in pace.


Love Changes Everything

Yesterday, I ran into an old acquaintance at a church picnic. It was woman I got to know both in depth and yet not at all over the course of a few years in the grossly under-appreciated sacred space known as the Church Parking Lot. I was a year or so out of a divorce that I had initiated. She was at the beginning of one she never wanted. How something so intensely personal came up in the normally polite, reserved ‘hi’s and ‘bye’s over the holy water, I don’t know but somehow it did. I lost count of all the times we stayed talking as the parking lot emptied out around us. I know plenty about her divorce but at the same time, I know almost nothing about her. It was kind of sad in a way, as if that whole experience had defined her entirely.

As for me it’s odd to look back now and recognize that there actually was a time when I went to Mass every day. That was abruptly cut in half when my boys transitioned into public school and I could no longer make 8:00 Mass. Every day became Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. It did not go unnoticed. After Mom’s fall, surgery and months of physical therapy, daily Mass became almost impossible. My less-frequent attendance quickly became a favorite conversation starter, as in, “Where have you been?” or “Why haven’t you been here?” More and more I felt pulled to spend time alone at the beach, away from the observations, opinions, and commentary of the daily Mass crew. That was a few years ago and so much has changed, none of which comes up for casual conversation.

So when I ran into this lady at the church picnic after not talking to her for a few years, I expected the usual, ‘Nice to see you, how have you been, boys are getting so big…’ sort of conversation. Instead, she instantly began to divulge her life’s difficulties as if we’d just parted ways a few days ago. The whole time she was talking, she was staring at my face like she wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. Rather abruptly, she stopped talking, looked me head-to-toe, backed off a half-step and then asked, “What did you do?”

I have to say I was a bit taken aback. “Do?”

“Yeah, you just… look… so… different. You look like ten years younger… you’re just… just… absolutely radiant.” As she sort of stammered, she looked like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to reach out to touch me to make sure I was real or if she wanted to back away slowly.

The last few years, I’d felt like everything was constantly changing. What had I done? Where to even start? Especially with someone whom I barely know at a picnic in the parking lot of a church I’m barely connected to anymore?

She must’ve sensed my hesitation. Before I could formulate a reasonable answer, she gushed, “You’ve lost ten pounds. You look so young and vibrant. You look like a woman in love.”

Ah, yes. Weight. Always a safe topic amongst women. “Actually I’ve gained about ten pounds but I do feel really good. My RA has been in remission and I picked up weight almost instantly when I stopped my meds…”

“No. No” she cut me off, “It’s not that…” she insisted. She looked me up and down again. I was starting to feel like an alien species by this point. Not at all pleased with my reticence, she turned to my mom. “What has she been up to? Look at her. Her whole face is different… her eyes…”

It should be noted at this point that Mom goes to the church picnic for one reason and one reason only: undying loyalty to the pastor. If he says come to the picnic, she comes to picnic. Socializing in-depth with people she barely knows is about as much fun for her as hugging a pissed off porcupine. She shot me one of her Don’t-you-dare-make-me-share looks.

“Well I did go to back to school and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself…”

Even that didn’t seem to satisfy her but it did get Mom off the hook. Soon enough I found a good excuse to exit stage right.

I spent most of last night and a good chunk of this morning trying to wrap my head around that conversation. In my own mind, I’m just the same old me I’ve always been. Life unfolds a minute at a time and I guess sometimes I don’t realize how much my life has changed until I’m in a situation where I’m faced with someone who still holds on to an outdated image of me. But radiant? Ten years younger? How can that be? Did she miss the new white streaks in my hair?

Well, I suppose if I’m honest, everything around me right now feels fresh and new in a way I’ve never known. Life is good. I’m happier now than I’ve been in an incredibly long time. God and I are on better terms than we’ve ever been. So yeah, I guess she wasn’t all that far off. I am a woman who knows she is loved. Apparently that shows. Who knew?

The Empty Bench


One of my friends posted a photo of an empty bench on Facebook.  The question posed was simple enough. If you could sit on that bench and talk to anyone, past or present, for one hour, who would it be?

Interesting question.

Jesus?  We talk all day every day already – would be nice to see His eyes – but that day will come soon enough.

My dad?  The hour would be nice but I don’t think I could say good-bye again. The first time was hard enough.

My sister?  I wouldn’t change a second of our last conversation.  I didn’t know that good-bye would be our last and I have a slew of questions I’d love to ask her but ultimately her journey was hers and mine is mine so those answers really wouldn’t change much.

So who would I most want to talk to?

Me.  At 16.

Not 19 when I threw up my hands at God and told Him to take a hike.

Not 21 when I was getting ready to marry.

But 16, when I really started to listen to and even believe those voices that said I wasn’t good enough.  Would I tell myself not to do some of the incredibly stupid things I did or maybe do the things I was too afraid to do at the time?  Nope. I learn best when I learn the hard way and I wouldn’t be who I am now except to have traveled the road I have.

So what would I tell Me at 16?

That English teacher who told you that you can’t write is an idiot.  Don’t listen to him.  Listen to the dozens of others who say otherwise.

That nun who keeps trying to get you to talk about Dad – she actually does care.  You might want to talk to her.  At the very least, stop yelling at her.

That nun who told you to always question authority, she has your back.  It really is okay to trust her.

It’s okay to admit you need help and to ask for it. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.

All those days when you feel like you’ll go crazy or die if you don’t sneak off to be by yourself for awhile? Sneak off. Your gut is right. You need time alone with God to heal.

You’re going to get really, really pissed off at God. Go ahead and scream at Him. No lightning strikes – well at least not up to 41 anyway. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

That big long list of stuff you’re so afraid you won’t be able to get through? You will get through. Not without a lot of tears but tears won’t kill you. Honest, they won’t. It will get messy. It will get hard. It will get very, very ugly and you will be scared out of your mind on more than one occasion. But when it gets messy and hard and ugly and you’re convinced you’re about to break, you’re going to dig down deep into a well of grace and strength that you don’t even know you have and you will come out the other side of hell. Brush the ashes off. Don’t be ashamed of your scars. They’ll tell your story more eloquently than any words you’ll ever find.

I know you don’t believe me but God knows what He’s doing. More than that He knows what you’re doing and He’ll make that work in His own weird way of doing things. Just accept the fact that you can’t possibly screw up beyond His ability to make it work in the end. Life is hard enough Sweetheart, don’t make it harder.

And what does Me at 16 think of all this? She thinks I’m crazy as hell and she’ll do it all the hard way anyway. Because she is, after all, Me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Blind Ashes

I spent the last few days pulling together pictures to make a video scrapbook for my son Andrew’s fifteenth birthday. As I worked my way through the project, I realized I don’t have many photos from before 2007. When I walked away from my house and a bad marriage, I left nearly everything I owned behind, including box upon box of baby pictures. At the time, I simply did what needed to be done. To move in with Mom and Cathy, to sign away the house, to walk away with nothing but my name, to start rebuilding my life for myself and my boys: I’ve been told it was a bold and courageous thing to do. To my mind it was survival, plain and simple.

I tend to do that, to slip into survival mode. I come through hell, never look back and several years later I’m suddenly looking around wondering why I’m covered in ashes. Going through all those old pictures, I found a lot of ashes.

Every week during my pregnancy, my sister Kitty called me. She lived in Maryland and she was as excited as I was about my first baby. I mailed her copies of the ultrasound pictures and we ran through baby names. As my due date grew closer, our phone calls got longer and it wasn’t unusual for us to talk until the phone batteries would give out. The Wednesday before Mother’s Day was one of those nights. Kitty and I laughed about all the joys of late pregnancy, in particular having baby feet perpetually wedged in my ribcage. She told me that she was planning to come and stay with me for a few weeks after he was born. ‘I won’t come when he’s born,’ she said, ‘everybody comes then and you’ll have plenty of help. I’m going to come later, maybe for his Baptism and stay. That’s when you’ll need the most help.’ The phones started beeping in low-battery protest shortly after that. We said our I love you’s and hung up. I never talked to her again. On Saturday morning, Mom and Cathy knocked on my door at 7 AM. Kitty was gone. She’d died suddenly of a massive heart attack sometime Thursday night. The police found her on Friday. I literally felt my heart break. It was pain compounded when the doctors declared me too close to my due date to travel to the funeral. The day of her funeral, I was home screaming into a pillow on the living room floor, devastated by shock and grief.

Three weeks later Andrew was born. I refused the epidural. My tremendous fear of needles trumped the pain of labor and delivery. When he was born, the doctor laid him in my arms for only a moment. He had aspirated fluid and they wanted him rushed to NICU for observation. I was blind from the pain and while I heard his first cries, I couldn’t see him. Then they whisked him away. Two hours later, I was feeling weaker rather than stronger and the doctor, fearing I was bleeding internally, knocked me out so she could do stitches if necessary. She told me to count backwards from ten. I got to ‘ni…’ and everything went black.

Then Kitty was there with me. ‘I told you I’d come,’ she told me. ‘Wait until you see him, Chris, he’s perfect! He had the biggest blue eyes.’

‘You bitch! You cheated! You saw him first!’ But I was glad she’d seen him. ‘He’s okay? They took him away.’

‘He’s fine. Daddy’s with him.’ Dad had died eleven years earlier but somehow I knew what she said was true. ‘He’s breathing beautifully. He’s so precious.’

We talked about other things too but before she left me, she promised she’d stay with us. Maybe it was nothing more than a drug induced dream but it didn’t feel like one. When I finally came to, several hours later, that rip in my heart wasn’t quite so raw. Once I was upstairs in my room, they brought Andrew to me. Sure enough he had the biggest, brightest blue eyes and he was wide awake.

As I’m working on the video and pulling together pictures, I can’t help but think how much my life has changed in the last fifteen years. The hopes and dreams I had as a new mom at 25 seem so very far way from the way life has turned out at 40. Andrew is heading off to high school in the fall and Eugene isn’t all that far behind him. It’s been in the back of my mind since I turned 40 that Kitty was only 43 and her son was only 17 when she died. I find myself more and more aware of what things I want to pass on to my sons. As I talk to guidance counselors and teachers, I have a growing realization that I’m more concerned with raising intelligent, kind, compassionate, spiritually grounded young men than I am about raising successful A students. That usually doesn’t translate well in parent-teacher conferences but then I’ve always been one to do things my own way.

Now with Andrew’s birthday looming and memories of Kitty lurking, I decided I needed to go out and get lost this morning. I filled up the gas tank and queued up some new music, Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn to be precise. There’s nothing better then a little blues gospel on such a perfect day for a long winding drive through the Naugatuck Valley. As I drove, I passed many old overgrown cemeteries with the lively new spring grass having little respect for the forgotten and neglected memorials of those long dead. I couldn’t help but think about how much birth and death have intertwined in my life. Dad died on my birthday. His funeral was on Kitty’s birthday three days later. It was an odd bond that we shared as sisters. Then too, Kitty’s death will be forever linked to both Mother’s Day and to Andrew’s birthday. And yet, every year the calendar slap in the the face becomes less about what I’ve lost and more about what remains, namely the love and guidance of my father and my big sister.

Years ago, my friend John told me, that having experienced neither in his immediate family, he considered me fortunate to have known so intimately the two greatest miracles of life: birth and death. I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, see it at the time. I know now that he was right all long. I just needed to rub the ashes out of my eyes.

Mary Margaret ‘Kitty’ Pelfrey 20130601-165719.jpg