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Posted by on Feb 22, 2012

Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting – Lenten Practices in Our Lives Today

Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting – Lenten Practices in Our Lives Today

Praying Hands - Albrecht Durer

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, brings with it a reminder from Jesus of the importance of 1) caring for each other, especially those in need, 2) staying in close communication with God, and 3) strengthening our physical, mental, and spiritual lives through actions that help us develop more control over the urges that don’t lead us to God. The traditional names for such activities are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Catholics who grew up before and during the years of Vatican II often think first of fasting or giving up something as the activity of choice for Lent. This practice was generally phrased in terms of “What are you giving up for Lent?” There were (and still are) days in which fasting from normal amounts of food was required of adults between the ages of 21 and 59. However, there were other days in the year which were also set aside for fasting, so that was not unique to Lent. What was unique to Lent was giving up something: candy, television, movies, cigarettes, drinking, etc.

Ash Wednesday’s reading from Matthew 6:1-18 is a reminder that all three practices are important and even interdependent. They are also to be done quietly, without great fanfare, and without even congratulating ourselves on how well we’re managing to do them! So, how can we — citizens of a busy, busy world — find time to pray, identify and organize resources to share with others, and make fasting somehow different than dieting?

A few thoughts come to mind.

1) Almsgiving: The sharing of worldly treasures has been a mark of the Christian community since its earliest years. Christians recognized from at least the time of St. John’s Gospel, and before, that Jesus is present in the community.  To the extent that anyone is suffering from lack of basic necessities, those who do not lack them have failed to meet the needs of Jesus. This is a hard teaching sometimes, especially when times are tough and there is little left over to share. Remember: we are called to share our time, talents, and treasures. If what you have is time, then give of that. If what you have is talent (maybe for telephoning or organizing a bake sale), offer that talent to help provide for those who need food or shelter. If you have enough money (treasure) to support yourself and your family, then share from what you have; maybe eating more simply for a few meals or waiting an extra month before buying that new pair of jeans, and giving the savings to feed those who don’t have enough.

The important thing is to be open to sharing what you have and creatively listening for the opportunities to do so.

2) Prayer: Time for prayer is not easy to find —  if you think you have to set aside an hour a day to pray. On the other hand, if you remember to intersperse prayer into your entire day, then it becomes easier. A quick thank you for the morning as you open your eyes, a blessing over breakfast, a smiled expression of gratitude for a pretty sight on the way to work or the joy of a child exploring her world, a few moments of reflection on how the day is going at lunchtime, a quick prayer for the right words to say in conversation with a friend or co-worker, a blessing at the end of the day, a few moments of reading scripture while supervising a child’s bathing — all are ways to pray in a busy life. God is present in all of these moments and in the unpleasant, difficult moments as well. But God generally doesn’t burst into our lives and shout, “Do This Now!” God is much more subtle, inviting us to notice the presence of the divine in the everyday creation in which we live, and always leaving us free to respond to that presence as we choose.

3) Fasting: Limiting the amount of food eaten, or not eating at all, is the generally understood meaning of fasting. Going hungry on occasion is a good thing to do. It helps develop a greater appreciation of the gift of food. It also helps strengthen the will, so when other things must be declined, the will is strong enough to do so. However, fasting from food is only one way to fast. The practice of “giving up something” was a form of fasting. When we turned off the television on weekdays during Lent during my childhood, we broke its spell and no longer felt we had to watch any programs. We had time to do things together as a family that we didn’t do when the television was on: board games, music, conversation, outdoor play, cooking together, etc.

Fasting today may mean limiting our consumption of: consumer goods, recreational activities, social media including Facebook, television, text messages, tweets, online games, lunches or dinners out, or (insert your own time-consuming activity).  It creates a space for other things – for God to be noticed and heard.

Perhaps, out of fasting in this broader sense will come opportunities for prayer and resources for almsgiving as well. Then the circle of activities that quietly draw us closer to God will have become complete.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer – Public domain image

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Posted by on Feb 20, 2012

Celebrating Lent – A Puzzle to Get Started

Celebrating Lent – A Puzzle to Get Started

As Lent begins this coming week, we are called to turn from activities or things that separate us from God and instead do something positive to clear our way to return to friendship and union with the Trinity. It is a time to celebrate God’s love for us, trusting that God is in charge and even hard lessons help us become closer to the One who loves us unconditionally.

In the spirit of celebration, then, let’s start with a puzzle. Click here for the solution once you’ve tried it. Click here for a version you can print.



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Posted by on Dec 26, 2011

A Christmas-tide Reflection

A Christmas-tide Reflection


Across the world once again, a star is in our sky,
a gift is in our hearts: It’s Christmas.

Right here at home: our highway is our backbone, our rivers,
our arms and legs.
The forest is our clothing.
The ocean is our blood.

As a people, we have known: Struggle, Isolation,
Darkness, and Bitterness.

But more importantly, we have also found: Success,
Security, Happiness, and One another.

It’s Christmas once again: time to focus on what makes light overcome
darkness and love overcome emptiness.

It’s time to believe once more that no matter how battered our lives are,
no matter how well off we are materially, there is still someone who knows
our darkness and lights it,
who knows our hurt and heals it.

It’s a moment for healing, and we really need it this time.

Healing is the medicine that can close the wounds
between parent and child, brother and sister,
government and people.

Healing comes from God – directly or indirectly.

We must do what we can do; God does the rest.

Merry Christmas

Received from Fr. Ron Shirley,
who received it from someone else.
Used with Fr. Ron’s approval.

Image from NASA – NGC 5584

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Posted by on Dec 21, 2011

Advice and Encouragement from St. Peter Canisius

Advice and Encouragement from St. Peter Canisius

St. Peter Canisius, S.J.

“If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.”

St. Peter Canisius, an early Jesuit, lived during the Reformation. He was active in teaching, ministering to the sick and the poor, in addition to being entrusted with implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent. He was assigned to work in Germany following the Council, teaching and establishing colleges and seminaries. He developed a catechism for ordinary people, one of the first of its kind. He was a popular preacher and prolific writer, who was not afraid to write to Church leaders to encourage them to live up to their calling.

As we approach Christmas, with all the busyness of the season, we could do worse than to remember St. Peter Canisius’ words and ask God to help us do the things we need to do, and to let go those that really don’t matter.

Image in the Public Domain – painted in 1699.



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Posted by on Dec 18, 2011

Waiting and Listening for the Coming of the Lord

On this last Sunday of Advent, as excitement for Christmas builds, it’s time to listen carefully for the ways God speaks to us as we go about our daily activities. Christmas is coming, but not here yet. It’s still Advent, with the Advent imperative to wait in quite wonder as our God transforms human existence and all of creation through the Incarnation. We heard the story of the Annunciation as told by St. Luke (1:26-38) in our liturgies today. A song I learned as a teen echoed in my heart through the rest of the day. “Our Lord has come today, let us rejoice now. Our Lord has come today, let us rejoice. The whispered ‘Yes’ of a lowly maid brought life to dying world, so rejoice now, my friend, rejoice now.”

This week, as we go about our work, whether in offices, factories, fields, homes, or other locations, let us keep our ears open to hear the voice of God speaking through our family members, co-workers, friends, children, senior citizens, and strangers we meet  along the way. Each person we meet can be God’s messenger to us, reminding us of who we are as God’s beloved children and calling us to be greater than we ever dreamed possible. In our dealings with other people, may we be patient, kind, thoughtful and understanding, so they too may receive the gift of peace at this time of preparation and be able to wait and listen to hear the Lord coming through all the excitement and hubbub. As we give and receive this gift of peace, our world can be transformed again, as the Lord lives through us, continuing to bring life to the world.

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Posted by on Nov 30, 2011

An Advent Calendar to Make with Children

An Advent Calendar to Make with Children

Advent Activities calendar

Advent calendars are a traditional way to mark the passage of days in December leading to Christmas Day. Unlike Advent itself, which varies in number of days, Advent calendars only count the 24 days of December before Christmas. Some have a candy or other treat for each day. Some have a picture of a toy or tell a bit of the Christmas story. Each day, one door is opened. As the month progresses, it becomes quite clear how close Christmas is coming.

Advent calendars are a wonderful way to help children experience Advent as a season unto itself. They also help children to experience in both tactile and visual form the passage of time.

I developed this Advent calendar for the children in grades 3-5 when I was teaching in our parish religious education program. It’s an easy project to do in an hour or two and offers a daily reminder of things to do together or individually to prepare for the coming of Christ in our daily lives, on the Last Day, and as he came historically – the day we celebrate at Christmas.


Advent Calendar

You will need:

2 – sheets of white  card stock or construction paper – 8 1/2 by 11
1 – small brad
1 – 5 inch ribbon (wrapping paper type is fine)
Crayons, watercolor paint, colored pencils, pastels or other “coloring” medium of your choice
Adhesive tape

To make your Advent calendar:

Advent Calendar Cover Page Template

Activities page
  • Draw/color a picture of a lighted candle on the larger circle that has only the “cut-out” marked. Be sure to draw your candle so that the cut-out points to the lower right side of the picture. Don’t worry if the coloring goes outside the lines of the circle. It won’t matter. The important thing is that the child draw the picture, not that it be a great work of art!

Advent Activities Picture

  • Cut out the cover picture (of the candle) and the activities page.
  • Cut out the area of the cover picture inside the dashed lines.
  • Make a loop with the ribbon and tape it to the back of the top of the cover picture, so the picture will look straight when you hang it up.
  • Poke a hole in the center of each page, where the black dot is.
  • Insert the brad through the holes, with the cover on top and the activities page underneath. Open the wings of the brad on the back side of the Advent calendar to hold it together. The activities page should be able to turn behind the cover.
  • Set the calendar to Day 1 and hang it where you will see it each day of December and remember to do something special to prepare for Christmas.

Happy Advent!


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Posted by on Jun 8, 2011

Waiting in Anticipation for the Holy Spirit

Waiting in Anticipation for the Holy Spirit

Fresco from St. Charles Church, Vienna

Easter Season is drawing to a close this week. The season itself lasts fifty days. It begins with Jesus’ Resurrection and concludes with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The last nine days, from the Feast of the Ascension until Pentecost, are a special time of prayer to invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives ever more deeply as well.

Jesus promised his followers that when he returned to his Father, he would send a Paraclete to them. Some translations use the term Advocate for Paraclete. The choice of word, as is generally the case in translating, gives a slightly different sense to the promise and its implications.

Advocate is a term used to describe lawyers who plead the case of persons accused of wrongdoing. Advocates are also people who argue on behalf of people who are at a disadvantage in a social setting or a negotiation. Advocates are people everyone needs at one or another point in life. Having an Advocate sent from Heaven on our behalf is not a bad thing. It can be quite encouraging. Yet the term carries with it a sense of our unworthiness and sinfulness. We need someone to represent us in dealing with the Father.

A couple of weeks ago, our pastor suggested that the word Paraclete might actually be better translated as Cheerleader. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is the one who encourages us, seeing the good we do, how hard we try, how we keep falling and yet encouraging us to get up and try again. Fr. Ron explained that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is our cheerleader, our biggest fan. God got excited enough about humans to become a human (Jesus). And Jesus returns to the Father, fully God and fully human, promising to share that spark of Love, the Holy Spirit, with all of us too.

What a wonderful promise! Not only do we have an advocate who’ll plead for us when we mess up; we also have a cheerleader who’ll be there to cheer us on as we keep trying and keep believing that we really are lovable.

In these final days before Pentecost, lets hold on to this promise, waiting for the gift of an even deeper relationship with our God. A relationship that doesn’t depend on how well we manage to live our lives, but rather on how crazy God is about each of us and how much God wants us to respond in love to that gift of love.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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Posted by on May 7, 2011

Sharing in Divine Mercy

The second Sunday of Easter is known as Divine Mercy Sunday. The Gospel reading (Jn 20:19-31) tells of Jesus’ appearance to His disciples in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday evening. He appeared among them, wished them Peace, showed them His wounds and asked for something to eat. Then He breathed on them, the breath of the Holy Spirit,  and told them to forgive sins. He told them to continue the work He had begun, taking the Good News of God’s love out to all the world.

When I was growing up, the message of this Gospel’s story of the granting of power to forgive sin was generally presented in terms of the power of priest to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance (now more often known as Reconciliation). However, as I listened to the Gospel proclamation last Sunday, the Good News I heard was of the gift given to all of us as followers and disciples of Jesus – the power to forgive those who hurt us in some way.

Forgiveness does not come easily to anyone. When hurts come along, it’s often much more satisfying to plot revenge, or bask in a stew of martyred pouting or otherwise hold on to the hurt. But Jesus knew something we often miss. The one most hurt, the one most diminished, the one who suffers most from such behavior is the one who engages in it! Perhaps that is why He was so quick to forgive those who had abandoned and denied Him just a few days earlier.

As we live our calling as followers of Jesus, we share the task of bringing forgiveness, reconciliation and peace to our families, communities, nations and world. Anything that stands in the way of this mission is to be suspect. We can’t forgive through our own power. Some wounds are just too deep for our human ability to heal. But Jesus is with us and He can heal them if we are willing to open them to His touch. And as we receive healing, we are called to pass it on, so that the waves of forgiveness and healing at last embrace all the people of the world. It’s truly a noble calling.

Peace be with you.

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Posted by on Apr 28, 2011

Easter Week Daze

I tried to blog during Holy Week. I would like to say that I was too caught up in ecstasy to touch the keyboard, but I was really silenced. It wasn’t really writer’s block. It was more a sense of something I am learning in my old age – to keep my mouth shut. As an extrovert this is an occurrence of note, since I don’t often know what I am thinking until I am expressing it.

Per usual, after the stress of the event, I can begin talking or writing about my experiences of Lent and Holy Week now that we are in Easter Tide.

Easter Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Vigil, is a montage of one highly charged event ebbing and flowing over many others. The breaking of the bread at the Last Supper; Judas sent off on his errand; Jesus looking for support and finding us asleep. The darkness at noon covers all creation. Nicodemus asks for the body of Jesus. Mary of Magdala weeping as she asked the Gardener, “Where have you laid him?” followed by the overpoweringly personal entreaty of a close Friend, “Mary.” The disillusioned disciples heading back home and being consoled by a stranger Whom they invited in for the evening. The guest only reveals Himself in the moment of the breaking of the bread. After all of the betrayals, the abandonment, with the marks of the crucifixion on His body, His first words to the men who “threw Him under the bus” was “Peace.” In all of previous salvation history, God’s messengers manifest with the same greeting of peace, but now God does it directly, for the first time.

I understand that the traditional teaching is that the sacrifice of Jesus satisfied the Father’s need for atonement, but somehow, it is hard for me to imagine that God, in Jesus, would not take offense at the rejection of his goodness. Yet, Jesus doesn’t take offense even as the disciples and all of us cower in hiding.

The only thing that I can compare this daze to is to singing the last note of Hadyn’s Creation Mass as a member of the Loyola Men’s Chorus. The director had told us that we would know if we had succeeded if there was a deafening silence before the audience responded. The last note hung in the air. The director brought his thumb and forefinger together; the note evaporated high in the nave. The silence was profound and seemed to last forever. The temperature dropped and then there was thunderous applause.

I am still in the coolness of the silence after that last note. It is not a bad place to be. I hope you are too. Peace.

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Posted by on Apr 26, 2011

Violence and Atonement: A Necessary Link?

Violence and Atonement: A Necessary Link?

Fireweed by Joseph N. Hall

The relationship between violence and atonement is closely woven in scripture and theology but it seems inimical to me. As a life long Catholic, anthropologist, and amateur theologian, I grew up with the notion of the Mass as the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary. Things changed after Vatican II to a focus on the Paschal mystery. Despite all of the language we have about the Father requiring satisfaction, it does seem contrary to Jesus’ own teaching about the fact that human fathers, “evil as you are,” would not give your son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matt 7:11)

Clearly, there is patriarchal and tribal language in the concept of satisfaction. This is still prevalent, as seen in a recent gang rape case in Pakistan. A young woman was brutally gang raped by men of another sub-tribe because her 13 year old brother had apparently flirted with a young girl of the other group. To settle the conflict and avoid greater reprisals, the elders of the young woman’s group offered her as a settlement.

This is not only revolting to our current sensibilities, but it challenges the notion of sacrifice in the tribal sense. My own existentialist take on redemption has to do with authenticity. God took upon Himself our human condition and brought mercy, healing, and peace. For this he was publicly tortured to death.

My own post-modern sense is that the Father is not so much offended by our sin as appalled by it, as an act of vandalism or destruction of works of great beauty conceived in boundless love. The freedom that is required for the reciprocation of love can also be used to reject it. I personally cannot conceive of an infinite God who is somehow diminished or “offended.” To continue to anthropomorphize the Father as a post-modern, post-Freudian human father leads us to a Father, Son, and Spirit caught up in the continuing ongoing creation of bonum diffusivum sibi – good diffusive of itself. The Incarnation and Christ event are the result of an unlimited and unconditional love.

Clearly, this post-modern language flies in the face of Old Testament pastoral society and the cult of Temple sacrifice in the New Testament. Early Christians had to find a way to explain the Christ event in their own cultural and historical context. However, there is no denying that a post-modern Father is less monstrous to the secular humanist ethics and sensibilities that derive from the Christian tradition of the West.

As terrible as the death of Jesus was, it was completely overshadowed by the fact that no evil can come between us and the Love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)

The great peril of a tribal metaphor is not its irrelevance nor its systemic violence, but rather the chasm it creates between God and us that continues to be the original and fundamental blasphemy alienating us from God and ourselves. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer at the Mass of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday begins in astonishment “Father, you love us still and sent us the Christ.” Yes, what amazement there is, that in spite of our rejection, God never stopped loving us.

The demand for violence attributed to the Father elevates evil to the level of the divine. The unrelenting intrusion of the divine in the human train wreck, of necessity, requires God to confront violence; which he does with non-violence – even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

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Posted by on Apr 11, 2011

St.Thomas: The Post-Modern Realist

St.Thomas: The Post-Modern Realist

Sun Shining Through Clouds

St Thomas the Apostle is often known as Doubting Thomas because he refused initially to believe the reports of the resurrection of the Lord. In today’s gospel reading from St. John (Jn 11:1-45), the raising of Lazarus from the dead, I saw something for the first time about St. Thomas that changed my view of him.

Jesus receives word that his fried Lazarus is seriously ill and prepares to head back to Bethany near Jerusalem. The apostles don’t think this is a good idea because they had just left the area after threats against the Master’s life. Jesus tells his uncomprehending followers that Lazarus is dead, but they are returning to Bethany so that his followers can see Him for who He is. This doesn’t appear to make any sense. It is a pointless suicide mission. Thomas doesn’t doubt. He is quite certain, but he is loyal and will not leave his master. His statement, “Let us go and die with Him,” is not skeptical. It is very certain. It is almost absurd in a 20th century style worthy of an an existentialist play.

In fact, Thomas is the grown up we are supposed to be. Look at the facts. Be reasonable, sensible. You may be willing, out of love, to sacrifice yourself for a great cause or a great love, but you approach it with knowledge, with courage, stoically.

This scene actually creates a set of book ends. The matching scene is the encounter with Jesus after the Resurrection, after Thomas had declared that he wouldn’t believe the reports until he saw Jesus personally. None of the apostles died with Jesus. In fact, at the time of his arrest Jesus told the authorities to take Him but to leave them alone. We all know the story of how they – and all of us – scattered in the night when the Shepherd was struck. Peter follows at some distance only to deny Him three times. John is the only man at the foot of the cross. In His time of need Jesus can count on His mother and a handful of women. All too true – real enough for the followers then and now.

Somehow it is easier to “to go and die with Him.” It sounds noble, altruistic. It is easier to believe in the finality of death than the open endedness that is resurrection. El sentido trágico de la vida – the famous Spanish existentialist manifesto – The meaning of life is tragedy. Yes, I know that is not the more literal translation – the tragic sense of life. The death of Jesus would indeed be the Great Tragedy another one of his great disappointments, another cosmic joke perpetrated on an accidentally occurring Homo sapiens.

As post modern people and followers, we are so overcome with the senseless suffering and death of millions that we claim that we believe. Yet our faith is more of an adolescent, impotent tantrum of defiance, because, in the end the facts are the facts. So, let us go and die with Him.

This is an interesting set up for Palm Sunday and Easter. Of course, this is just what St. John’s Gospel does. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. The challenge to us and to Thomas is to believe in a life beyond tragedy, absurdity, meaninglessness.

Yeah, well, heard that, been there… but it can’t work. It’s foolish. We are all dying. Just be brave about it. It is what it is. Resignation to the inevitable makes sense. Resurrection by our Best Friend who cries in grief and loss for us doesn’t make any sense at all. Or does it?

Image by Robert & Mihaela Vicol – Released to the Public Domain

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Posted by on Mar 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal

Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal

Receiving the Ashes in the Sign of the Cross

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It tends to be a day when people think about what they are going to give up in preparation for Easter. Fasting can be seen as a convenient type of dieting. Almsgiving can be reduced to cleaning out the closets.

However, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are ancient practices in societies and religions all across the world. They are ways to produce altered states of consciousness and encounters with the divine. In the Christian tradition they are part of the “via negativa” or negative way. Generally, we tend to see this type of deprivation against the historical backdrop of hermits in the desert rejecting the “flesh” of worldly temptation and indulgence. Of course this conflicts with our consumer culture of comfort and instant gratification. It also conflicts with a more positive psychological model in which the focus on human weakness is replaced with a focus on human self-fulfillment and actualization.

In the secular model of well being, human and social limitations can be overcome by refocusing our attention and modifying our behavior. Hammering down our feeling and emotions – especially sexual ones – is sometimes seen as harming mental health. By denying our interior tensions and conflicts, we can fail to confront the real challenges we should be facing in our psychological development.

Lent itself is an old word for Spring – that time when the world comes to life again. The “via negativa,” the more traditional model of asceticism (an interesting Greek word for athletic training), and the contemporary model of self affirmation are not really opposed. They can actually be healthy correctives. If we focus exclusively on restraining ourselves we not only ignore opportunities for growth, we can also ignore what God is calling us to do. Focusing only on my needs and self-fulfillment can also lead to such an inward narcissistic self-absorbed focus that we cut ourselves off from true happiness.

In subsequent posts, as we journey through Lent, I will share with you some more reflections on being happy, holy, and healthy. This is a wonderful season for reconciliation with ourselves and others and a time of renewal for our call to serve and to engage in the coming of the Kingdom – the age of justice.

So.. what am I going to get for Lent?

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Posted by on Dec 24, 2010

A Pilgrimage on the Pathway of Peace

In Advent we journey with our sisters and brothers around the world, all children of the same God, to the Kingdom of Peace and Justice. Christ, as Key of Knowledge is our guide along the pathway of peace.

O Key of Knowledge, guide us in our pilgrimage,
we ever seek, yet unfulfilled remain,
open to us the pathway of your peace.

For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.

My Soul in Stillness Waits by Marty Haugen, 1982

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Posted by on Dec 23, 2010

Advent – The Coming or Arrival of Something Extremely Important

Advent is a liturgical season for Christians. It’s also a term that means arrival or the coming of something extremely important. One of the O antiphons refers to Christ as the Root of Life who draws all to Himself, giving birth again to hope through His dying and rising. May we welcome His advent in our lives.

O Root of Life, implant your seed within us,
and in your advent, draw us all to you,
our hope reborn in dying and in rising.

For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.

My Soul in Stillness Waits, by Marty Haugen, 1982

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