This past year my life went through a shrinking, as did most people’s due to the restrictions and lockdowns from the pandemic. After several months of slowly getting used to that, another big change occurred when my elderly mother came to live with me, and I became her main caregiver. That entailed further shrinking of my life and activities. It was a shrinking within a shrinking, and it has not been without its challenges.
Yet there is a deep peace and a joy in serving my aging mother, especially when I accept and embrace this new chapter in my life.
We live through different seasons of our lives, and each season has its own challenges, crosses, joys and rhythms. Sometimes we suffer during a particular season because we resist what is being asked of us. We become angry and resentful. But if we believe God is with us using circumstances to shape, guide and love us, then the season we find ourselves in can become beautiful and filled with meaning and peace.
Not that it is easy. Recently after a particularly challenging two weeks of health issues and doctor’s appointments for my mom, I was discouraged and exhausted. But during a conversation to which I was only half-listening I heard a friend talking about the rose bush outside the window. She said, “Keep cutting the roses as they come out. When you cut one, even more grow in its place.”
Those words reverberated through me. I thought of what Jesus said about pruning. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit” (John 15:1-2). I desire to live a fruitful life for the Lord. But that means there are things in me that need pruning—selfishness, impatience, lack of charity, etc.
How is God going to prune us? Many times the pruning shears that the Lord uses are the specific circumstances in our lives. Those things that annoy us, prod us, or cause us to stretch beyond our personal comfort zone can actually be the sharp edge of the pruning knife. As it cuts, it makes way for new growth within us.
I have learned that if I start resenting my current season and the demands it brings, I get grouchy and miserable. However, if I lean into the present moment and embrace what today holds, knowing that God is with me, a gentle, peaceful strength seeps in and my inner equilibrium is renewed.
So after thinking about all of this, I pulled out a pair of pruning shears from my storage closet, went out to the rose bush and cut a rose. I put it on the table, and I am letting its lovely scent remind me that through every challenge and trial, the Lord can bring more fruit into my life. And perhaps I will be able to share that fruit with others who need it.
Ellen Hogarty is a spiritual director, writer and full-time missionary with the Lord’s Ranch Community in New Mexico. She blogs at cacklescorner.com.
I did not grow up in faith. Although my grandparents were faithful Anglicans, my family were not churchgoers. I went to an Anglican high school, but that did not mean much to me. I briefly thought about God’s existence in my teens, but quickly dismissed it as ridiculous. I remember sitting on my surfboard one day, surrounded by tiny waves, praying, “Please send me some waves.” Then, I thought, “How can I pray when I don’t believe in God?” Little did I know that deep within my heart was a real emptiness. That spontaneous prayer was a sign that I was missing something essential. After school, I joined the army to study at the Australian Defence Academy. However, this coincided with my phase of teenage rebellion. I went out drinking, neglected to do assignments and failed nearly every exam. I even refused to cut my hair, which was not a good look in the army. So, it was not surprising that soon I was on my way back home. But my mother would not tolerate these bad habits. After I stayed out late drinking, she told me that my behaviour was unacceptable. When I tried to argue, she told me that I would have to start paying board if I wanted to set my own hours. I was so pig-headed that I started to do just that, but it was one of the best things that my mother ever said to me. That prompted me to study Surveying and hold down three part-time jobs. However, in my downtime, I was out drinking at least three nights a week and experimenting with other drugs. Only my guardian angel’s intervention prevented me from killing myself or someone else with my recklessness, especially when I drove in a drunken state. Sometimes, I had absolutely no recollection of what had happened for several hours. I was completely blacked out. I do not think that anyone understood what I was doing to myself. My sexual morality was also very dubious. Exposure to pornography at an early age affected how I treated women. That deeply horrifies me now and it distresses me to reflect upon my behaviour at that time. I wish I could go back and repair the harm I caused. Choices We Make After university, I got a mining job which enabled me to save a lot, since there’s not much to spend it on out there. So, I set off to holiday in Europe. My choice of reading material–a New Age book–was a good indication of the state of my spirituality. It was time to explore the meaning of life. I remember thinking, “I really like this guy, Jesus Christ. He loves the poor. He is not materialistic. He has got his finger on the pulse in terms of peace, but this thing about him being Son of God—that is impossible. He is just one of those great guys of history, like Gandhi or Buddha.” To extend my stay in Europe, I found a job navigating ships and oil rigs around the North Sea. From a base in Scotland, a helicopter would fly me all the way to rigs scattered across the North Sea as far as the Arctic Circle. After two or three days work, I would return for two or three days off. My landlady’s boyfriend was a born again Christian who gave me a book to read, “The Late, Great Planet Earth” about the end times. (Scott Hahn read the same book before his initial conversion to Christianity.) I read about ten pages before deciding that it was not my cup of tea (it did not interest me). One day, I was unexpectedly called to an urgent job. To while away the time on flights, I usually brought a book to read, but I had nothing except that one, so I grabbed it out of desperation as I walked out the door. I became engrossed in reading it, so the flight passed swiftly. Since the job did not take long, I had plenty of time to rest and reflect while I waited for the helicopter. Then almost unremarkably, a series of thoughts crossed my mind leading me to the astounding realization that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I did not know where these thoughts had come from. Everything that I had heard about Jesus started making sense for some reason. I was a bit stunned and did not know what to do, so I said, “Jesus, if this is true please let me know.” At that moment, an amazing light seemed to spill out of my chest into the whole cabin, filling me with ecstatic joy. I had never experienced anything like this and it knocked my socks off. I felt a burning desire to read the Bible, so I hunted one down straight away because I could not wait. I spent my three days leave reading the whole New Testament straight through, from Matthew all the way to Revelation. Growing Deeper On my return to Australia, Mum was thrilled to see me again and came across my Bible while helping me unpack. “What's this?” she said in surprise, so I told her the news. “I’m a Christian. I’ve found the faith.” Her response was discouraging, “Craig, don't lose your friends.” I had a really great bunch of friends. It was actually through one of them that I became a Catholic. Karl married a Catholic whose family was heavily involved in a charismatic community. When they invited me along to a prayer meeting, it was a totally novel experience for me, but I loved it. They had a ten week course starting that week, so asked if I could join in. The Lord really seemed to be bringing me home. One of them asked me one day, “Why don’t you think about becoming a Catholic?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Yes, I'm really open to that.” So, I started a one-on-one RCIA program with their chaplain, Father Chris. He gave me a catechism explaining all the Catholic doctrine we would be studying. I read through it and told him that I had no problem with any of it. I believed it all, without a doubt. Nothing that The Church taught was a barrier for me. Just as everything made sense to me when I first read the New Testament, I was able to immediately perceive that the teachings of The Catholic Church were true. I had no doubts at all. A Higher Call? Over the next two years, I became a Catholic, attended daily Mass and continued growing in my faith. As I thought about the future, I considered whether God was calling me to a religious vocation or marriage. Father Chris was in the Servite order, so I decided to join them to discern if I was meant to be a priest. They sent me to Melbourne for training, but before too long I realized that this was not where God was calling me. However, it was all part of His plan as in Melbourne I would reconnect with Lucy, a lovely, young woman who would become my wife two years later. My faith journey was such a gift to me. I had not even been interested in becoming a Catholic or even a Christian. I was not even trying to understand who God was. I was not even asking the questions. God, in His infinite mercy, just decided to say, “Well, it’s time for him to come now.” He gave me that experience on the oil rig and made it so dramatic because he knew that I needed that. If it was a more subtle experience, I probably would not even be a Christian today. I just needed to be smacked between the eyes. But, with my hand on my heart, I can honestly say that I have never doubted, for one second since, that God exists, or that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and my Savior, through His death on The Cross for my sins. Upstart of Miracles Starting a school—Angelorum College in Brisbane— is our family’s big project now. Lucy wanted to help families grow in holiness. It is the primary goal of the school and everything we do is designed to support that. Since there was previously no Catholic Distance Education school in Australia, we also support families who home school with curriculum and other practical assistance. In the beginning, I was almost praying that it would not get off the ground, because it seemed insane to think that we could start a school and there were so many obstacles to overcome. The first miracle was getting approved. The second miracle was finding a place to set up the school—thank you, Legion of Mary. There have been many miracles since and, five years down the track, it is bearing fruit in the lives of all the families who joined us in this crazy venture. We are now praying for the miracle of finding a bigger, permanent home. It is so exciting to be sharing our faith with the next generation, in company with such faithful, generous, loving families. Encountering the love of Christ and realizing what He did for us, and is doing for us all the time can transform lives. Eternity opened up before me, so I want to share that good news. Before I was dead, but now I am alive, I have discovered the pearl of great price. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God and we find our fulfillment in Him. Before my conversion, I desperately tried to fill the yearning emptiness inside with temporal pleasures which could never satisfy, but after my conversion He made me complete. So, I do not go out to get drunk now, not only because I do not want to lose my wits, but because I have no need to do that since I found my joy in the Lord. I am finally becoming the person that the Lord intends me to be, since He has saved me.
Father Tao Pham shares his breathtaking journey through the storm, in spite of his crippling disability To fulfill my dream of becoming a priest, I had to overcome a lot of challenges and difficulties. Many times, when the pain seemed unbearable, I prayed that my sufferings would be united with Jesus in His Passion. I knew that He could do anything, so if He wanted me to become a priest, then one day I would be a priest. I was born in the north of Vietnam, the 7th of 8 children. We grew up in a very poor village where schooling ended at Year 9, but I felt that Christ was calling me to the priesthood. This was only possible if I received tertiary education. When I was 14, my brother and I sorrowfully bid farewell to our family so we could attend high school. At that time, the Communist government in North Vietnam had closed all the seminaries, so after high school graduation, I spent 4 years assisting our parish priest full-time, 4 years at university and 4 years teaching before I finally began seminary training in the south. My dream was finally coming true, but this was just the beginning. When I’d finished 3 years of Philosophy, I was invited to complete my study for the priesthood in Australia. Unforseen... After 3 more years studying Theology and a year of pastoral placement, I finally received the happy news that the bishop had chosen the date for my ordination as a deacon. A few days before the big day, I had a little mishap when the car boot fell and squashed my fingers as I was removing my luggage. The other seminarians cleaned me up, but the fingers became so swollen and painful that after 3 days, I finally went to the hospital. To my surprise, the doctors told me that I had less than 50% of normal blood volume because I was bleeding internally. They discovered a stomach ulcer which needed an emergency operation. When I woke up, I was astonished to find myself tied to the bed. The doctor said I had been shaking so much that they had to tie me down so that I could receive a blood transfusion. They told me that I had tetanus, but after 40 days treatment, I was well enough to go back to the seminary to begin the intensive study prior to ordination. After several weeks, the Bishop asked me to come and stay with him. It was wonderful to be attending him at Mass, but I suddenly collapsed in the Cathedral and had to be rushed back to hospital. They put me into intensive care because I had developed a catastrophic blood infection and was not expected to live. I stopped breathing and had to be put on life support. Since the doctors were certain I would die, they sent for my family and my brother came from Vietnam. After receiving the Last Rites, life support was turned off, but I didn’t die. After a couple of hours, they turned on the machines again. A couple of weeks later, they turned the machines off again, but I still survived. I ended up being in a coma for 74 days and was operated on 18 times. Cutting Off When I woke up from the coma, I was still in a lot of pain. I could not talk because there was a tube in my throat. Even after the tubes were removed, I could not speak. It took months to slowly and painfully learn to talk again. My condition was still critical so the doctors prepared me for another surgery, which my brother had already consented to, but when I read that they were planning to cut my leg off, I refused. The doctor told me that I would die if it was not amputated, but I did not want this to prevent me from being ordained as a priest. I would not give up my dream of becoming a priest even though my family and many good friends were telling me that it was hopeless, to just go home to Vietnam and get married. It was very challenging, mentally and physically, but I put my hope and trust in God. After a month on “Nil by Mouth”, I was desperately longing to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. If I could receive even a drop of the Precious Blood, I knew that I would be healed. The next day Father Peter brought the Precious Blood to me in Holy Communion. As he trickled a few drops into my mouth, I visualized it moving into my body and touching the infection. The following day, I felt much better. Tests were done and the infection was gone. After more than a year in hospital, we had a meeting with the staff of the hospital to discuss my future. The bishop attended on my family’s behalf. The doctor reported that I would never be able to walk again and would need high level care 24 hours a day for the rest of my life. They said that I would not be able to look after myself, shower myself or even get in or out of bed without help. It was devastating to hear this and even more devastating to hear the bishop’s decision that he would not ordain me as a deacon or priest. After all the years of study and waiting, my dream seemed to be over. It was very difficult for me, however I kept praying. I was determined to walk again, so I worked hard at all the painful exercises I was given, offering up my suffering in union with Christ for all the people who needed my prayers. The rehabilitation took years. Often I felt like giving up, but I held onto my dream and that gave me the courage to go on. Glistening Eyes Despite all these challenges and obstacles, I still felt Christ calling me to become a priest to serve His people, even in my weakness. So, one day I sent a letter to the Archbishop of Melbourne asking him to accept me for ordination. To my surprise, he arranged to see me straight away and discuss what he needed me to do. He agreed to ordain me, even if I had to lie in a bed or sit in a wheelchair, but he told me that I would get better and better, and I would be walking. At that stage I was still in a wheelchair, but I continued to work at my exercises while I finished my study, so when ordination day came I was able to join the others walking in procession. The Cathedral was filled with the jubilant faces of friends. Many of them had met me when I needed their care in hospital so they knew how astonishing it was that I had lived to see this day. Tears of joy filled my eyes and I could see their eyes glistening too. I could not believe that this day had finally come, 30 years after I set out from my village in pursuit of my dream. Now, I work with 2 other priests in a busy community with 4 churches, several schools and 6 nursing homes. Every day when I walk in to say Mass is like a fresh miracle. I do not think that I will ever tire of it. Then, strengthened by the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, I go out to visit the children in the schools and the elderly in the nursing homes. I feel blessed to bring His presence to them. The long wait to share in Christ’s priesthood is over and I can share with them the fruits of my suffering in union with Him. Persisting through all my difficulties has enabled me to understand and help people in their adversities. I have learned that thinking about the needs of others and putting on a smiling face for them diverts me from my own afflictions and transforms my suffering into joy. When people come to me for assistance, I can draw on the strength I gained from my ailments to encourage them to persevere through their trials. Because they can see that I suffer a disability, it is easier for them to relate to me in times of trouble so that they can receive the Church’s support to maintain hope in the darkest times.
I discovered the transformative power of the “Prayer of Abandonment” by Blessed Charles de Foucauld through one of my professors at graduate school, shortly after my husband and I became foster parents to a sibling group of three. I was reeling from the transition to motherhood, and my teacher suggested that this prayer might help me find the peace I so badly needed. “If you want to change your life,” the kindly priest explained, “say this prayer every day … and if you want to transform your marriage, say it with your husband!” Eagerly, I took the little prayer card, taped it to my bathroom mirror, and read it aloud each morning: Father, I abandon myself into Your hands; Do with me what You will. Whatever You may do, I thank You: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only Your will be done in me, and in all Your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into Your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to You with all the love of my heart, For I love You, Lord, and so need to give myself, To surrender myself into Your hands without reserve, And with boundless confidence, For You are my Father. For nearly twenty years, this heartfelt prayer of simple trust, based on the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), has been a constant source of light for me, especially as my husband and I continue to parent these children, two of whom we adopted in 2005. Through all the joys and sorrows of family life, this prayer rings true to me, and I find myself offering it in a new way now that my mother has joined our family. When dementia troubles her mind, this prayer helps me to walk with her without fear, with boundless confidence in the One who loves us both.
Do you believe God is right here, right now? “Keep guard at all times over the actions of your life, knowing for certain that God sees you everywhere.” This verse from chapter four of the Rule of Saint Benedict aptly characterizes one of the Rule’s foundational principles: awareness that we are always in God’s presence. This knowledge of God’s constant gaze upon us can be both our greatest source of strength in temptation and our most powerful reminder of God’s perfect love and care for us His creatures. The certainty that no actions escape the notice of our Creator causes us to mind our behavior and curbs our natural inclination to excess or inaction, helping us instead to direct our intentions toward the glory of God. Under God’s watchful eyes, we are less likely to have that extra glass of wine or sleep in and skip morning prayers. Awe-Inspiring Proposal! Our charitable acts are treasures worthy of Heaven, but sometimes they are tainted with our own self-seeking. Remember Jesus’ caution in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Take heed not to do your good before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise, you shall have no reward with your Father in Heaven” (6:1). The Prologue of Benedict’s Rule teaches us how to purify our intentions: “Whenever you begin any good work, beg of [God] with most earnest prayer to perfect it.” Praying before starting the smallest of tasks not only allows God to use our actions to accomplish His purposes but reminds us that God is with us in everything we do. Benedict believed that “the Divine Presence is everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the evil in every place” (Rule, Chapter 19). Since we are to always imagine ourselves in the company of our Creator, Benedict challenges us in the same chapter to “consider how we ought to behave in the presence of God.” What an awe-inspiring proposal! Yet do we really believe that God is with us here and now? The truth is likely that, though we believe through faith that God is omnipresent, we easily forget it, especially when we are caught up in the daily grind. It is easy to be struck by an acute sense of God’s presence when gazing at a breathtaking sunset, but much harder to realize His power and presence when we take out the trash. Practice Makes Perfect God’s omnipresence is not just a theological concept to accept, but a habit that requires cultivation. Constant awareness of and responsiveness to God’s Presence, known as ‘recollection,’ is an acquired disposition that has taken many a saint—perhaps even Saint Benedict!—years of practice. One method of fostering such recollection is to ask ourselves each day how God has manifested His love for us that day. As we recall the myriad ways God showed us His tender care and mercy, our hearts will spontaneously fill with thanks and praise, which in turn cultivate in our minds and hearts a deep love of God. Ultimately, glorifying Our Maker in thoughts, words, and actions becomes second nature. Inevitably, even the most recollected among us can lose sight of God during the storms and stresses of life. But the reality is that during times of fear and confusion when God seems far away, He is actually nearer than ever, “trying us by fire” to turn us closer to Him. Thus, Saint James exhorts us to “count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance” (1:2-3). Though we may not feel particularly joyful in the moment, there is tremendous value in attempting to be present to whatever crisis is confronting us, having faith that God is with us and will provide a measure of relief. Wedded Bliss Indeed, Sacred Scripture tells us beyond a shadow of a doubt that God never leaves us alone, especially in times of trouble. In Psalm 91, God assures us through the psalmist that when we call, He will answer: “I am with you. I will save [you] in distress and give [you] glory” (15). Who can forget Jesus’s poignant words quoted from Psalm 22 as He hung on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (2). Yet that same psalm closes with a hopeful closing passage that many have never heard: “For He has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (25). Indeed, the last third of the psalm is an invitation to praise God! A few hours before His arrest, Jesus predicted to His disciples that they would abandon Him yet declared, “I can never be alone; the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And before ascending to His Father, Jesus promised us, “Know that I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). Sorrows, labors, anxieties, irritations, weaknesses, oppositions, rebukes, humiliations—all can be borne patiently and even accepted when we fix our eyes on Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matthew 1:23). When the One we love is all around us—ahead of us, behind us, above us, below us, beside us—past regrets and future worries are rendered powerless. Under the approving, all-seeing eyes of the Almighty Father, life with Jesus in the present moment is wedded bliss. “Now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
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