A Reflection

By Sr. Pia Ignatius

Not too long ago we visited Mariapolis Luminosa in Hyde Park, NY.  At Christmas time, Luminosa traditionally hosts a unique display of over 100 Nativity Scenes from all over the world.  It was fascinating to see how different cultures chose to represent the crèche.  The great variety of materials used, the colors, even the size of the figures represent the vibrant expression of the people.

Because of my background, I sought out the crèches from Spain and I hoped that I would be able to find El Caganer.  Alas, I did not.  Maybe it is too insignificant a Spanish tradition, but my heart did sink a little, as I have fond childhood memories of hunting for him in the crèche and proudly pointing him out to my parents.  

The origins of this tradition are a bit imprecise, but most historians can agree that it started during the Baroque period.  There is, however, an unwritten rule about El Caganer.  He is never placed anywhere close to Mary, Joseph, or Jesus.  Rather, he is tucked away behind a bush, or bale of hay. 

Although we do not know how this tradition began, it is a centuries old element of popular iconography that reminds us of our humanity, bringing a note of realism to the sacred representation of the Nativity. But, the most common explanation for the presence of this incongruous character is that it reminds us that Christ will enter our lives not when WE are ready but when HE is ready.   


Jesus is the Reason for the Season!

Want to learn the secret of making paper poinsettias? Regine Lambrech was only too happy to show our Novices during craft night!
Decorating the Novitiate

"Illuminosa Mariapolis" is the display of Creches of the World presented in Hyde Park, NY as an Advent annual event.  Sr. Lois Ann, Sr. Cyril, Sr. Pia Ignatius and Sr. Julie Michael took an afternoon drive to see the display!  A chapel was also on the grounds for short visits.

                                                                 A Chapel Visit

A Different Santa!

                             Formation Team: L-R: Sr. Maria Therese, "Santa" Sr. Lois Ann & Sr. Cyril

by Sr. Maria Therese, O.Carm.

This could only happen to our Formation Team on the rare occasion that the Sisters go out together! Last Saturday evening was a unique experience!  Sr. Cyril, Sr. Lois and I went out for  a belated Feast day celebration. You'll never guess who we ran into? Yes, that's right! An eco-friendly Santa with lots of helpers on bikes! It is not every day that you run into Santa! God bless him and all his helpers as they headed out  with presents for the kids at the homeless shelter in Kingston, NY.  Santa and his helpers truly blessed us that cold night with the warmth of their kindness!


A SISTER'S PAGE: Doctor of Love: Saint John of the Cross

By Sr. Helena of Mary, O.Carm.

Feast Day: December 14th
Carmelite, Mystic, Doctor of the Church

The Carmelite Order celebrates the feast of Saint John of the Cross on December 14th. Saint John is first of my favorite male Saints, with St. Francis De Sales, as my second. Humanly speaking, his life was a story of poverty and sufferings but spiritually, it was a story of love between a creature and the Creator. To know Saint John, we need to know some basic facts about him.

Juan de Yepes was born June 24, 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain. He had two brothers, Francisco and Luis. Luis died as a small child after his father's death. His father, Gonzalo De Yepes, belonged to a noble family of silk merchants. His mother, Catalina Alvarez, was an orphan girl who was raised by a local family and earned her living as a weaver. The two met when Gonzalo was on a business trip. Gonzalo fell in love with this attractive young woman and the two married "out of love" without the blessing of the Yepes family. Gonzalo was disinherited and the couple raised their family in hard work and financial straits but full of love and dedication. When Gonzalo died, Catalina was left to care for the boys. Life proved to be very difficult for her and the small family of three lived in abject poverty. Catalina assumed the heavy responsibility of feeding and raising her children. She was forced to move from place to place to look for a good paying job that would help her  meet even the bare necessities of life. This childhood experience of self-sacrificing love would form John and he would develop this subject and used it as a structure in his explanation of the Divine love of God and the standard of what our own response to God's love should be. His sayings of: "Where there is no love, put love and you will find love," "Love is repaid by love alone," "In the evening of life you will be examined in love" "When you experience something unpleasant, look at Jesus Crucified and be silent," are all sentiments formed by his own experience of self-emptying love.
Catalina was described as a very devout Christian woman who brought up her sons "with the greatest Christian spirit, and encouraged them to be devoted to the Mother of God." Years later, Saint John would recount a story of his childhood. He had fallen into a pond and a very beautiful lady appeared and stretched her hand to him in the motion of helping him. Young Juan refused to extend his hand to her because he did not want to get her dirty. A workman with a pole eventually fished him out of the pond and rescued him. Saint John often said that it was for this reason that he was very devoted and fond of Our Lady.

We cannot speak of Saint John without mentioning Saint Teresa of Avila. The two met when St. John went back to Medina del Campo to celebrate his First Mass after his priestly ordination. He had entered the Carmelites but felt unhappy thinking he was called to a more austere life of the Carthusians. St. Teresa had founded a reformed Carmelite community of nuns in the same town and was beginning a process of finding men to join her reform for the friars. This was to be a providential meeting. They met and talked and St. John confided to her his plans. St. Teresa for her part convinced John to join her reform and assured him that whatever he was looking for with the Carthusians, he would find in the Reformed Carmel. John agreed provided that he did not have to wait long.
John and Teresa suffered much for the reform of Carmel. It resulted in St. John being held prisoner for 9 months in a Toledo cell by his fellow Carmelite brothers. True to the practice of the times, he received the beatings and penalty imposed on a "renegade " religious. He was in a solitary confinement, deprived of any kind of mental or physical activity, in the cold and dark prison cell with a very small window to allow a little bit of light to enter. When the time ordained by God came, he escaped and made his way to a monastery of Reformed Carmelite Nuns in Toledo. They barely recognized him for they found him emaciated, confused and looking barely alive.

St. John's experience in imprisonment brought with it a purification of the purest quality. It would bring out the sparkle already in the diamond that was St. John. It produced the most beautiful poetry Spain  ever had, the 'Spiritual Canticle." John of the Cross would serve the Discalced Order in a spiritual way. He is considered to be the co-founder of the Order along with Saint Teresa of Avila. He died in Ubeda December 14, 1591 from a blood poisoning originating from a gangrenous ulcerated leg sore. He was beatified by Pope Clement January 25, 1675. His canonization occurred 50 years later on December 27, 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. He was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius XI August 24, 1926.
Personally, I love Saint John because he is a true voice of Truth. He is dependable because he doesn't water down the demands of the Gospel. He points to what is true and necessary and does not mince words to soften the blow. He challenges but at the same time he comforts with his words of love and understanding. He demands but at the same time understands the frailty of human nature. He holds up an ideal but makes room for human weakness. He feeds us with the solid meat of the spiritual. He is austere but at the same time poetic and eloquent. He speaks of mortification and detachment but always in the context of loving. He reminds us that we are special and loved by God. He reminds that we have been bought by the blood and death of Jesus and that nothing - no suffering, no trial, no persecution- can ever make us repay what He did out of love. Except to love Him back.

Saint John wrote his major works of The Dark Night, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love. He also wrote some prose, prayers and Counsels. We have some surviving letters he wrote.

Saint John of the Cross is known as the Doctor of the Dark Night. That is an inaccurate description. His dark night was only a means to the greater end of transforming union in love. He is a Doctor of Love. Only if we see him in this light, will we cease to be afraid of him and his doctrine.

What is St. John's relevance in our modern day and age?  I believe first and foremost that he, like John the Baptist", is the voice that cries in the wilderness, "make straight the way of the Lord!"  His voice bears the impact of conscience.  Our lives can become filled with so many needs, longings and wants, ambitions and plans.  We find our plates full , and yet, still go away hungry and thirsty.  We find ourselves in a world of options and freedoms, and yet, find ourselves enslaved and limited.   We find ourselves soaring so high in our spiritual adventure, and suddenly, find ourselves on a rapid descent and sometimes ending with a fatal crash on the ground of life.  What does John of the Cross say to all these?  "On the way to the mountain, nothing, nothing, nothing. And at the top of the mountain, still nothing."  (Ascent of Mount Carmel).  God is much greater than all the goods of this earth.  Much greater than the loftiest of our spiritual experiences.  Much greater than our mind can conceive.  He teaches us that the ascent to union with God is accomplished in darkness and nakedness.  He teaches that God is not found AFTER the darkness passes, but that God is IN the darkness, and to embrace this darkness is the surest way to find God.  Faith, Hope and Love, the three things that last.  In the end, these are the surest guides we can depend on. We are living in these times of faith-crisis.  We look for signs and miracles.  We exalt grand spiritual experiences and gravitate to what our intellect can understand.  We are confronted by worldly idols and created some ourselves.  We put out our hands and frantically grab whatever makes us happy, only to be disappointed because they all make us feel empty.  In short, we look for God in all the wrong places.  St. John invites us to journey WITHIN.

Saint John of the Cross, pray for us!


A SISTER'S PAGE: Mary of Guadalupe

Feast:  December 12th
by Sr. Helena of Mary, O.Carm.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beautiful feast appropriately celebrated during Advent.  Just as the message of Guadalupe was a message of light piercing through the darkness, so is the message of Advent that of Light dawning upon mankind.  The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is beautiful in that it once again shows us the tenderness of Mary as mother, appearing to a humble native named Juan Diego on the hills of Tepeyac, to offer consolation and hope to a world wrapped in ignorance and darkness.  She appeared heavy with child, anticipating the beautiful event we are to celebrate Christmas night, when the Child to be born of her comes to save His people.

Mary's tenderness and gentleness in Tepeyac drew the humble Juan Diego to the top of the hills to learn more about this beautiful sight of the "Heavenly Lady" before him.  What humility the Mother of God had when she decided to appear to him as one of them, a native just like himself, only more beautiful than he had ever seen.  When asked who she was, she replied by saying, "I am the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live.  It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me."  Mary is the Mother of the Church.  She brings the message to the Church, works through the Church,  and does not bring anything to fruition without the Church.  Just as on Pentecost, a small band of uneducated, frightened men, huddled together to await the  coming of the Holy Spirit, so were the people of Tepeyac waiting for this hour when the light of God will come.  And Mary was there to bring it about.  In their ignorance they did not know it.  They were content with darkness: the darkness of pagan idols, human sacrifices, poverty, sin.  But grace pierced through the darkness of their world.
It seems that the Mother of God is drawn to people who are most humble and act with no pretense.  Juan Diego was set to meet Our Lady one day at the top of the hill when he was confronted by a choice he had to make.  His uncle was ill and he had to find a priest to hear his confession.  But the Lady was waiting for him.  What was he to do? He decided to go around the hill and passed on the other side to avoid being detained by the heavenly Lady.  Mary came out to meet him and reassured him:  "Listen and understand, my humblest son.  There is nothing to frighten and distress you.  Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you.  Is it not I, your Mother, who is here?  Are you not under my protection? Are you not, fortunately, in my care? Do not let your uncle's illness distress you."  How many times we long to hear those words in moments of trials and distress, when we feel sad and lonely?  Many times I recall these words of Mary and they give me comfort and joy.
Our Mother left us a token of this love and consolation: her image imprinted in the beautiful "tilma" or cloak still venerated today in Mexico City.  I have heard it said that in all of Mary's apparitions, she had been portrayed according to the accounts of her witnesses.  But in Guadalupe, she left us an image created by herself with her own brush.  The most interesting thing is that a thorough study of the image shows an image of a man reflected in one of the pupils of her eye.  Experts claim it was that of Juan Diego.  You can't get more personal and intimate than that.

What is the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe?  There are many.  She is the Patroness of Life.  She brought life and light to a world of sin and darkness.  She is the bearer of life, pregnant with the Word made Flesh. She reiterated that she will always and forever be our Mother, whether we know her or not.  Just like a true mother, she searches for her children and takes the initiative to bring about what is good for them.  She is forever the "ever Virgin Mary", both Virgin and Mother, thus confirming the teaching of the Church from the beginning of salvation history.

Just on the side, I am happy to reflect on the grace of knowing that my father was born on Our Lady of Guadalupe's  feast, December 12th, and my mother- a day after Our Lady's Assumption, August 16th, and I was born on the feast of Our Lady of the Snows (dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major)!  I am forever grateful for this grace of Providence.

May our most beautiful and gentle Mother, be our comfort always and our joy, our treasure and source of strength.  May we always look for her at the top of our own "hill at Tepeyac" and recognize her as "our true mother... Are we not under her protection?  A mother who is always there..."


Are You an Eve or a Mary?

photo: Google Images

by Sr. Pia Ignatius, O.Carm.

Poor Eve really gets a bum rap in the Bible.  In a moment of weakness she succumbs to peer pressure and eats from the tree of knowledge.  We’ve all had our Eve moments.  Most of those moments probably happened in school when we were struggling to fit in and not be different.  But we can all look back on our lives and remember times when we did something, with full knowledge of it being wrong, just to not be different or cause waves.

Let’s take a second look at what Eve really did.  She was told by our Lord not to eat from the tree of knowledge.  That sounds familiar doesn’t it?  How many times have we been told by our parents or loved ones ‘don’t touch that’?  And how many times has someone come up to you and said ‘forget what they said, I know better.’  And we believe them, only to regret almost immediately our actions.  But what did Eve really do?  She decided to believe a stranger over Our Lord, our Creator who loves us dearly.  Again, sound familiar?  Think back to a time when your mother said to you, ‘I don’t like so and so, you shouldn’t hang out with them.  They are bad news.’  And what did you think or say in reply?  Probably something along the lines of ‘you don’t know what you are talking about I know better’.  And in the end what happens?  The whole thing blows up in your face.  This scenario plays out countless times throughout our lives.  It just changes location, from the school yard, to work, to the local bar.  Same premise just in a different wrapping. 

Now dig deeper.  What did Eve fail to do?  What is the one thing she could have done to help her learn and give her the strength to say no?  She could have gone back to our Lord and talked to Him.  And now we come to Mary, the new Eve.

The Archangel Gabriel presents to Mary a proposition.  She had free will, as we all do, and she could have said no.  In Luke 1:29 Mary was perplexed and pondered.  She thought about what Gabriel said.  She even questioned it! In Luke 1:34 she doubted and basically said (in modern layman terms) um, you’re crazy I can’t be pregnant I’ve never had sex.  Gabriel doesn’t yell at her or demand that she blindly obeys.  No, he explained exactly what was to happen and not only that but told her that she will not go through it alone.  Luke 1:36 tells us that Elizabeth, her relative is also pregnant.  So now this scary thing isn’t so scary anymore because she has a friend to travel on this journey with.  And Mary said yes.

When in your life have you reached a cross road?  A life changing decision must be made.  Picking what college to go to, accepting a job promotion, or getting married.  Did you turn to the Lord asking for guidance?  Or maybe something negative happens in your life and you turn to our Lord and ask why did you let this happen to me?  Either way you asked.  And then you look around to find your Elizabeth.  Ever hear the expression ‘God only gives you what he knows you can handle’?  Mary was about 14 years old.  Just let that sink in for a bit.  Mary like Eve had a choice to make.  And unlike Eve, Mary questioned and asked for an explanation before she made her decision.  


AMICITIA ("Friendship")

by Sr. Pia Ignatius, O.Carm.

On December 3rd, we celebrated the feast day of Saint Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary and best friend of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.  These two great men met in college, in fact, they were roommates at the University of Paris.  Francis didn’t much care for Ignatius at first.  He thought of him as over pious and Francis was more interested in being a “wild” college kid, keep in mind he was only 19, and Ignatius was 24 and an accomplished military officer at the time.  With much patience, time and prayer Ignatius won over Francis and helped him with his conversion.  The two men grew to love each other through the love of Christ. 

As time went by and the Society of Jesus grew, Ignatius needed to send missionaries to the Far East.  Francis volunteered when the original Jesuit fell ill and the two men had to make a huge sacrifice.  Later Ignatius would tell his best friend, "Go, set the world on fire!" After Xavier left for "the missions" the two would never see each other again. “I believe that in this life we cannot see each other anymore except by letters,” Francis writes Ignatius in one of his first letters. “To see each other face to face with many embracing—that will be for the other life.”  

Many letters were exchanged between the two friends but unfortunately Francis became gravely ill and died before Ignatius could call him back to Rome. In one of his final letters to Ignatius, and his fellow Jesuit brothers, he wrote: "So that I may never forget you and ever have a special remembrance of you, I would have you know, dear brothers, for my own consolation, I have cut your names from the letters which you have written to me with your own hands so that I may constantly carry them with me together with the valid profession which I made....I give thanks first of all to God our Lord, and then to you, most dear brothers and fathers, for the fact that God has so made you that I derive such great consolation from bearing your names. And since we shall soon see each other in the next life with greater peace than we have in this, I say no more." 

 Around his neck and close to his heart, Francis wore the signatures of his dear friends. “Let us ask God for the grace of seeing each other joined together in the next life,” Francis had once written Ignatius. “Whoever will be the first to go to the other life and does not there find his brother, whom he loves in the Lord, must ask Christ our Lord to unite us all there in his glory.”

In 1622, Francis and Ignatius were both declared saints. Bound together for eternity in mutual love for the God who brought them together, Francis and Ignatius are a powerful witness to the inexhaustible and transforming possibilities of friendship in the Lord.  An amazing testament to God’s love for us that He provides us companions for our Earthly journey.  

Upon reflecting on this great Saint, I couldn’t help but think of a dear friend of mine.  Tragically she was killed in a helicopter crash last July.  We were very close for a time but God called us to different paths.  She became a flight paramedic in New Mexico and I entered religious life with the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm.  We both had a zeal for being servants to others and caring for those in need.  For a time our paths were in sync and we traveled together with great joy.  But as we grew to follow our hearts we had to say our goodbyes and blaze new trails.  Like Francis and Ignatius, we never dreamed that we would not see each other again.  Friends may come and go in our lives but they will always leave a mark on our hearts.  It is God’s way of showing us how much He loves us.