With the mad rush on Black Friday, and the frenzy on Cyber Monday, I don’t think Americans have gotten the message that material things aren’t what matter most. From standing in line all night to purchase the latest Iphone, to getting the best deal possible on Ipads, Xboxes or flat screen TVs, Americans are driven by materialism. China has their equivalent busiest shopping day of the year called “Single’s Day”; single people celebrate their singleness by buying themself something extravagant.  I would call this the epitome of selfishness.

Americans want to look trendy and fashionable and many update their wardrobe every year to get the latest ‘look’.  So of course last year’s old fashioned outfits are donated, adding up to a whopping 4.7 billion pounds of clothing donated annually.  The amount of clothing is so astronomical that the global trade of used clothing has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry in Africa.  The problem is that so many used outfits flooding the market has stymied manufacturing in Africa, helping to stagnate the economy.

Our culture is so consumer driven that our faith is often pushed to the back burner.   Many don’t go to church, or if they do make the effort, they are often too busy to pray.  Take a spiritual checkup today – how much do you spend on stylish clothing, fancy electronics or expensive cars?  Are you generous in tithing to your church, or donating to charity?  How much time do you spend praying daily, compared to the amount of time you spend surfing the net or watching television?

Now look at your circumstances in life; is your life challenging?  Are you pedaling as fast as you can to keep up with work and your family, yet you get further and further behind?  Perhaps you are undergoing painful chemo or radiation, or recovering from knee surgery.  You might be struggling to make ends meet financially because your income has dropped, and of course the price of groceries and utilities has risen dramatically.  There might be tension between family members or friends.

If your spiritual life is lagging, God could be trying to get your attention by allowing obstacles to pop up.  Just as God punished the Israelites by making them wander in the desert for forty years, He may be allowing you to toil through the wilderness to “test you and know what is in your heart, to know whether you will keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).  In Deuteronomy 8:3 God warned that He would “…let you be afflicted with hunger, and then feed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know it is not is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord”.  Echoing the phrase “seek first the Kingdom of God”, this verse means that everything is a gift from God, and if we draw closer to him every day, he will provide for our needs.

Perhaps you are faithful in your spiritual life, but are hanging on to anger or unforgiveness.  Perhaps pride and self reliance are impeding your relationship with God and you need to grow in trusting God’s providence.  Greed or avarice could be a problem and you might be obsessed with jewelry, stylish shoes or finally owning a Rolex.  If you are in the desert God may be trying to reveal those dead and barren areas in your heart, or He may simply be trying to strengthen your faith.

This advent is a great time to examine your heart for spots that need pruning or spiritual growth.  Take time to ponder your past and reflect on the ways God has been faithful in dark times.  Perhaps you were out of work and friends dropped by groceries or simply left a gift of a check; perhaps you were involved in a nasty lawsuit, which suddenly was resolved.  No matter how difficult the circumstances, God’s grace carried you through.  It is also a time to ponder the First Commandment and the importance of putting God first in your lives.

Related articles:

What Really Happens to Donated Clothing http://shannonwhitehead.com/what-really-happens-to-your-donated-clothing/

Bitter Roots http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2014/04/15/wild-onions-and-dandelions/

Faith Tested by Fire http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2012/10/14/faith-tested-by-fire/

Sometimes life can be prickly and hard, but we have God’s promise that “In place of the thornbush, the cypress shall grow, instead of nettles, the myrtle.” (Isaiah 55:13)  The study note in the New American Bible for this verse suggests the image of being in the desert, “symbolic of suffering and hardship”, since thorns cause pain, while the cypress and myrtle suggest fertile land, representing “joy and strength”.

We once had a thorny tree in our back yard, and when we cut it down it was an absolute nightmare to transport.  We used big, heavy gloves, and still got pricked by the pointy ends; the pain was excruciating as it pierced deep into our tender skin!  Throughout our lives we are ‘stung’ by traumatic events, whether we had divorced or alcoholic parents, or suffered physical or sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment.

The thorns are different for everyone; many today are struggling financially to make ends meet; some are grappling with health issues, either chronic arthritis or some other auto immune disease.  Others are grieving for the loss of a loved one, while some are going through strenuous and grueling rounds of chemo and radiation.  Perhaps you have a child fighting an addiction, or experiencing severe anxiety.

Thorns show up in the Old Testament after Adam and Eve disobeyed God; they were kicked out of the luscious Garden of Eden and consigned to find food “by the sweat of your brow”, tilling “cursed ground” filled with “thorns and thistles”  (Genesis 3:17).  Adam and Eve left us a legacy of hard work, pain and sorrow, but the new Adam, Jesus, “ransomed us from the curse”, taking the curse upon himself.  Unknowingly the Romans mocked their ‘king’, smashing a crown of thorns deep into his skull, piercing his flesh.  Through his crucifixion and death, Jesus ransomed us, restoring us into God’s covenant and giving us our full inheritance as sons and daughters (Gal. 3:13).  The ‘good news’ is that Jesus received the crown of thorns to take away our pain and shame, and instead fill us with his peace and joy, to take us out of the desert of suffering.

I went on my first retreat back in 1993 with several other adult leaders of the teen group.  Since then I have probably helped present forty retreats for both teens and adults, and I have both experienced and witnessed over and over the transformation as Jesus delivers his children from the chains binding them.

I was meditating one day and I heard God whisper tenderly into my heart the promise of a new life in him.  His promise to all those suffering from depression, loneliness, and abandonment “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and power.  Through these He has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” (2nd Peter 1:1)

No matter how many ‘nettles and thorns’ seem to be in your path, remember God’s extraordinary grace and power.  One day I felt as though I would never get past my grief and sadness, and then I received this tender prophecy based on Isaiah 35 “The desert and parched land will exult, they will bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song.  The desert of shame and unforgiveness will turn into streams bursting with love and joy; the burning sands of loneliness and despair will be turned into pools of refreshing warmth and tenderness.  The thirsty ground yearning for love, will spring into wells overflowing with mercy and compassion.  The place where the jackals of darkness and depression roam, will be turned into a rich marsh, where hope and happiness flourish.  We will be met with goodness and gladness, and grief and sorrow will flee.  A highway will be readied for those striving for holiness, where we will be safe and secure, free from harm, crowned with his glory.”

During this Advent take time to prepare for the coming of Christ; take time to let him soften your heart and remove the thorns.  Let Jesus whisper words of encouragement and inspiration and rest in his embrace, pondering his immense grace and unconditional mercy.  Let the flowers of virtue bloom in your heart and rejoice in being set free!

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Use your American Express card on Small Business Saturday at Mary’s Garden on November 29, and receive a $10.00 credit on your American Express Statement!


There seems to be a common, recurring theme among Christians living busy, stress filled lives.  We feel pressured to be the perfect mother or father, student or employee, and it seems there are always too many bills to pay from our shrinking income.  Our bosses insist we become more and more productive, while we are running a million miles a minute ferrying our kids from one activity to the next.

So many Christians feel alone and distant from God’s presence.  Yet over and over in scripture God reminds us He is right there, guiding and protecting us, rescuing us from danger with His ‘strong right arm’. Psalm 136 describes God’s never ending love and that He “… led Israel from their midst, for his mercy endures forever; with mighty hand and outstretched arm.” This doesn’t mean God literally reaches down with a physical arm from heaven; instead it represents his omnipotence and phenomenal power, and that He is always there to support us when we are ‘drowning’ in our problems.

In 606 B.C. the city of Jerusalem was ravaged by King Nebuchadnezzar II and the sacred temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.  As a result of turning away from God and worshiping idols, thousands of Israelites were exiled to far away Mesopotania and forced into servitude.  Shortly before the end of their seventy year long exile the chosen people felt alone and abandoned, so God reminded them in Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God.  I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Eventually the Israelites repented of their sin, and God allowed Cyrus II of Persia to conquer the Babylonians.  Cyrus believed the words in Isaiah 44:28, written 200 years before, was a direct order from God “I say of Cyrus, My Shepherd! He carries out my every wish, saying of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt’, and of the temple, ‘Lay its foundations’.” He allowed the Jews to return to their ruined city and issued a decree authorizing them to rebuild the temple.

Our spiritual journey reflects the struggles of the Jews and their volatile, roller coaster relationship with God.  But instead of worshiping pagan gods, we ‘worship’ money, power, television, facebook, suggestive movies or books, and wallow in anger, self-reliance and laziness.  Then a job loss or illness reminds us of our need for a savior, and we turn back pleading for God’s grace and mercy.

Just as God rescued the Israelites after they repented, so too did Jesus rescue Peter when he started sinking in the waves right after he had proudly walked on water.  Instead of keeping his eyes on Jesus, he became intimidated by the storm surrounding him and doubted Jesus’ power to keep him afloat (Matthew 14:22).  Peter was terrified and called out “‘Lord save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?'”  When you are terrified and overwhelmed by your responsibilities, call out for help, and envision Jesus reaching out with his ‘strong, right hand’. Grab on with both hands and don’t ever let go!

True Racism

On my way home from work the other night I was shocked to hear an extremely inflammatory campaign advertisement on the radio.  Negative attacks on the other candidate from both parties are nothing new before an important election, but with the Republicans poised to possibly overtake the Senate and House of Representatives, some Democratic candidates are getting desperate.  Knowing the black vote is crucial, their advertisements are turning particularly ugly and downright racist.  From linking Republican candidates to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, to painting Republicans as lynch mobs, and warning that unless African-Americans vote, local police departments won’t be accountable, as shown in Ferguson, and more innocent blacks will be killed.

As journalist Jeremy W. Peters explained in the New York Times “The images and words they are using are striking for how overtly they play on fears of intimidation and repression. And their source is surprising. The effort is being led by national Democrats and their state party organizations — not, in most instances, by the shadowy and often untraceable political action committees that typically employ such provocative messages.”

Republicans are accusing Democrats of race-baiting “They have been playing on this nerve in the black community that if you even so much as look at a Republican, churches will start to burn, your civil rights will be taken away and young black men like Trayvon Martin will die,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican Party.

For decades Jesse Jackson has employed strong-arm tactics to force companies to hire more minorities, whether job applicants are qualified or not.   “When he speaks, white executives listen. For they know that he can make life very rough if they don’t ‘cooperate.’  Corporate leaders from Anheuser-Busch to Toyota have acceded to his demands, agreeing to earmark large sums of money for minority hiring and outreach. Moreover, they typically make sizable donations to Rainbow/PUSH, thus making possible future shakedowns. Often as well they set aside a certain portion of their contracting to minority-owned firms that pay Jackson for referrals. Jackson’s style can be called affirmative action with a clenched fist. And because of white executive timorousness, it gets results.” (From article Silicon Valley Capitulates to Jesse Jackson Shakedown)

Racism is wrong; whether it is directed by Caucasians against African Americans or vice versa, it is offensive and should be condemned.  The Jim Crow laws were despicable, and I greatly admire Rosa Parks and others who courageously stood up and refused to accept the repression.  Rosa rode the bus daily in Montgomery, Alabama, and one day in 1955 the bus was almost full, so she was ordered to give up her seat in the colored section for a white person.  She defiantly refused, and was arrested by the police for civil disobedience.

Some other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are the valiant “Little Rock Nine”, composed of nine daring black high school students chosen to integrate the all white Central High School in 1957, in Little Rock, Arizona.  On the appointed day, shamefully, around 1,000 white townspeople gathered and as the students tried entering the school the rowdy mob shouted racial slurs and threatened violence.  Some of the townspeople surrounded one terrified student, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, and threatened to lynch her.

Little Rock’s mayor asked for the federal government to intervene, and President Eisenhower responded by deploying the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard.  The ‘guards’ stayed at the school for the next year, but the harassment continued; young Elizabeth was pushed down a flight of stairs, Melba Matilla had acid thrown in her eyes, and the three male students were regularly beaten.

These and other daring activists risked their lives to put and end to such blatant dicrimination and boldly implement the Civil Rights Movement.  But in spite of the efforts of these brave Americans, education for blacks in America currently seems to be lagging badly, in spite of the massive infusion of federal funds from the Department of Education, which was created in 1979.  The gap between whites and blacks in math and reading has increased by five points since 1992, resulting in a whopping 30 point gap.  Even though the black graduation rate has increased to 68%, it still lags way behind the white graduation rate of 85%.  MSNBC Trymaine Lee described the “abysmal state of achievement for near-college age students…Just about a quarter of high school seniors were proficient or above in math and 37% in reading…the stagnant achievement growth among high school students in general speaks to a broader population of young people largely unprepared for secondary education, the clearest path to high-paying, high-quality employment.”

Unemployment among blacks is twice that of whites, and although I am sure racism may contribute to the high numbers, many experts blame the lack of education and high incarceration rate as the leading factors.  High crime rates among black males lead policemen to stop them more often, leading to a vicious cycle of higher arrest rates.  Since many black families come from single parent homes, which are the largest group in poverty, many black teens can’t afford an attorney, and wind up with poor representation from understaffed public defenders.

Sadly tactics such as the shake-downs by Jesse Jackson, the provacative rhetoric of Al Sharpton and the heinous strategies of the Democratic Party, are increasing racial tension and division.  In spite of  Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s  laudable efforts to keep juveniles and non-violent offenders out of the prison system, resulting in the biggest decrease of black incarceration since 1988, Democratic senate campaign ads for Michelle Nunn feature racially charged pictures of children holding up signs begging “don’t shoot”.

I find it unconscionable that Democrats are currying votes by deliberately stirring racial hatred and unrest. Democrats claim to be the ‘party of the minorities’, so why aren’t Democratic and black leaders addressing the main problem in the black culture of absent dads, which directly leads to poverty, abuse, addiction, and crime?  President Barack Obama challenged black men to set an example and become leaders when he addressed the graduating class of Morehouse College in 2013.  “Obama, who was raised by a single mother and grandparents, lamented the absence of his father in his life and urged the graduates to make family their top priority.   ‘Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner, or father to your children that you can be. Because nothing is more important.'” (From USA article below)

The President is absolutely right.  Since poverty, addictions, abuse and crime are much higher for children from single parent homes, it seems the most important issue politicians and black leaders should be addressing is the problem of babies born out of wedlock in the black culture, which has reached the astronomical rate of 72%.  Especially since it is over double the rate for white unwed mothers.  Black fathers are too often completely absent from their children’s lives, with devastating consequences.

So instead of fanning the flames between whites and blacks, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other Democratic leaders should be concentrating on helping young women to have more respect for themselves, to carefully examine a man’s character before dating him, and to encourage the institution of marriage.  Before dating a man, a woman should ask whether he will treat her with dignity and respect.  Does he work hard and is he willing to support her and a child?  Does he have anger or addiction issues?  These leaders should be encouraging black men to finish high school and attend college or vocational schools, and they should teach young black males what it truly means to be a real man who takes his responsibilities seriously.

Part of the reason blacks have such low graduation rates is because black students experience more school suspensions than white students.  NPR recently reported that numbers compiled by the Department of Education showed  that starting in preschool (four year olds), black suspensions are three times the number of white suspensions, often for the same offenses.  The school system funnels students into the juvenile justice system, by having them arrested for such infractions as a  school fight, leading to the dismal “school-to-prison pipeline”.

Are black preschoolers and elementary students more prone to unacceptable behavior, or is it the ‘perception’ that black children misbehave more than white children?  This is another important issue black leaders and politicians should tackle.  Children who have experienced school suspensions generally tend to have lower self-esteem, lack motivation, are stigmatized and drop out of school at higher rates.  If this problem is properly addressed, it could vastly improve the lives of countless African-Americans.

Instead Al Sharpton has been inciting protests and riots, resulting in looting and unrest in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri, where a young, unarmed black male was shot and killed by a white police officer.  On the surface the facts seem damning, but without waiting for the truth, Sharpton has been demanding justice and the prosecution of the police officer.  While the jury has been deliberating on the guilt or innocence of the accused officer, the autopsy report on Brown was leaked, and it does appear Brown grappled for the gun and had gun residue on his hands, was shot at close range, and blood in the police car reveals a significant altercation took place there.  So it is possible the shooting could have been justified, but it is impossible to know for sure until all the facts are known.

In his Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:9 Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God.”  Politicians need to stop making incendiary statements like Vice President Biden when he warned a crowed that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains”.  Before Richard Nixon became president, blacks often voted Republican, the party of their hero, Abraham Lincoln.  Then President Kennedy defied the racist Democratic politicians like Government Wallace of Alabama, and Senator Robert Byrd, and jumped into the fray with Martin Luther King, Jr. to further the Civil Rights movement.  President Lyndon Johnson was extremely shrewd and figured he could curry black votes by following in Kennedy’s footsteps.  He knew he would lose some white votes, but over-all he believed the black vote was an untapped gold mine worth the risk.

Since Johnson was pursuing the black vote, President Richard Nixon decided on his “Southern Strategy” to woo white voters by championing ‘states rights’ and petitioning the courts to delay busing students.   Nixon was extremely racist and some of his atrocious comments were caught on tape.  Johnson was just as prejudiced and for the twenty years he was in Congress blocked any efforts to repeal the Jim Crow laws.  But Johnson was pragmatic, as well as ruthless, and would do anything to get elected; in spite of his bias against blacks, he saw them as a huge voting bloc.  Both men left a tragic legacy of racial slurs against Jews, blacks and Asians.

It is time for politicians to quit using Americans as pawns to garner votes and instead to treat them with dignity and respect and truly look out for their best interests.  The only way to combat such hypocrisy, greed and lust for power is for Christians to follow St. Paul’s advice and “…be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world”.  Work on growing in holiness and stand firm in the truth, condemning these shallow politicians and their manipulative, outrageous ploys to get elected.

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Recently actress Renee Zellweger unleashed a media ‘frenzy’ when she attended a gala with her new look; she had changed so much that many didn’t even recognize her.  Renee denies going under the knife cosmetically, and claims she is simply eating healthier and exercising more, but the only recognizable features now are her prominent apple cheeks.  These two pictures show her around three years ago (on left), and the one on the right from a few days ago.  It really isn’t our place to judge whether or not she has had a face lift, but since 14.6 million people had cosmetic surgery in 2013, I thought this was worth discussing.

Granted, some surgeries are necessary; if you have precancerous skin cells, a chemical peel will peel away the infected cells. Aging and drooping eyelids can impair vision, and must be lifted, reconstructive surgery for scar and tumor removal is vital, and breast reduction can save a woman from back problems.  So about one-third of plastic surgery is necessary for health reasons, leaving around nine million people undergoing surgery to improve their appearance.  The average procedure can cost between $3,000 and $10,000, so annually Americans spend the astronomical amount of 45 billion simply to look prettier or more handsome.  Ouch!

I certainly understand the desire to be as attractive as possible; I used to have gorgeous copper hair, but as I have aged, my hair has turned a drab brown.  I could spend a small fortune every few months maintaining my natural hair color, but it simply isn’t important enough to me to warrant that much time, energy and expense.  I do have compassion for  those that went gray prematurely,  it makes sense to color their hair, as gray hair ages a woman dramatically.

Aging is not for the faint of heart.  Aching joints, sagging wrinkles and muscles, bunions, failing eyesight and cataracts; the list is endless.  Some people vigorously fight the aging process with excessive exercise, working out hours every day.  We should absolutely eat healthy and exercise on a regular basis, but in all things balance is crucial.  In fact St. Paul warns in 1st Timothy 4:8 “…while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future”.  So while exercise is beneficial and key to staying healthy, prayer is twice as important, since it affects the hereafter, which is eternal.

The definition of ‘vanity’ from Dictionary.com is “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.”  Vanity is tied in with narcissism, which is an “obsession with ourselves, to the exclusion of other people — both their needs, and their gifts which they want to share with us.” (From Trans4Mind, link below)  As we are warned in Ecclesiastes 1:3 “All things are vanity!  What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?  One generation departs and another generation comes, but the world forever stays.”  The only thing that lasts forever is our soul; eventually our bodies waste away and when we die our expensive jewelry, name-brand clothing and the rest of our cherished belongings are left behind.

If you are obsessed with your appearance, you might be suffering from the sin of vanity or narcissism.  One rule-of-thumb is to look into your heart; does it send you into an emotional tailspin because your nose is too big, or because you are pear-shaped, rather than like an hourglass?  I have never liked the shape of my legs, which I inherited from my mother; they are just too scrawny!  We all have imperfections, but television distorts our view of ourselves.  When photographing models and actresses it is common for Hollywood and magazine photographers to air-brush the pictures to ‘brush out’ flaws and make the men and women appear more beautiful and perfect.  The result is a ‘Barbie-doll’ mentality that unless we look flawless physically, we have no worth or value.

Back in 2009 actress Jamie Lee Curtis got tired of the entire charade, and hired a photographer to show her jamie lee curtis before and after thighs imagewithout makeup, sagging muscles and all.  She wanted women to see the way she truly looked, instead of the white-washed pictures you usually see.  Jamie has become so passionate about women accepting themselves, warts and all, that she has written four children’s books sharing the message of affirmation, that “It’s okay to be you”.

Hollywood is particularly obsessed with physical appearance, and Jamie had to work through that attitude in order to accept her ‘thunder-thighs’ and puffy back.   In the article True Thighs, Jamie explains “To have a life beyond the movie business, you’ve got to find out who you are without the stylists, the Harry Winston jewels and the fancy borrowed outfits. You’ve got to be able to look in the mirror and recognize yourself. ”   Jamie is open and honest about her ‘nips and tucks’, “‘I’ve done it all,’ she says, breaking yet another unwritten Hollywood rule: Never fess up. ‘I’ve had a little plastic surgery. I’ve had a little lipo. I’ve had a little Botox. And you know what? None of it works. None of it.’”  She explained that all the surgeries caused her to look puffy under the camera.

Jamie’s message of accepting ourselves and our faults is crucial for young women today.  St. Paul again warned in 1st Peter 3:3 to focus on the beauty within, rather than on physical appearance.  “Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes, but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God.”  Naturally many women take time with their hair and makeup to look as attractive as possible; just be careful not to spend more time primping than you do praying!  One double check is to weigh the amount of time and money you spend on your makeup regimen, having your hair styled, your nails done and your body toned.  If you are spending more improving your appearance than on your faith or on charity, you may have a problem with vanity.

To accept yourself and your flabby arms and knobby knees, focus more on increasing the beauty inside, becoming more kind and compassionate, caring and understanding.  One good measure to determine if you are self-absorbed is to examine the amount of time you spend helping others; do you babysit for young mothers with active children to give her a break?  Even if you aren’t a grandmother, there are plenty of young moms who would be delighted to have the help.  Do you volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul or help in homeless shelters?  One group, Love and Serve Atlanta, hands out shoes, toiletries, socks and bottled water once a month in Hurt Park in downtown Atlanta.  Perhaps you are called to donate your time as a volunteer at a hospital, or to lead a bible study.  Being involved is a great way to fight vanity.


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The word ‘pilgrim’, derived from the Latin peregrinum, describes someone on a journey seeking spiritual significance. The Catholic Church has designated many places holy and worthy to visit; some have importance because of the birth, death or spiritual awakening of certain saints. Others are apparition sites for the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as Lourdes in France, and Fatima in Portugal.  Some are important cathedrals or basilicas.

Christians make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and other religious sites for various reasons. Some go wanting to increase their faith, while some go for healing or intercession for some other need.  Other pilgrims journey to honor God or give thanks for prayers answered.  Christian pilgrimages have their roots in the Jewish faith, as Jewish law required all men to visit the temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year.  (See Ascending to God below for more info)

Recently my good friend, Maryan Lerch,  shared her experience of going on pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James.  Pilgrims plod through rocky mountains and dusty fields to reach the Cathedral of St. James in the historic town of Santiago de Compostela.  The bones of St. James the Greater were miraculously found buried in a field in 811 AD, and a basilica was built over the holy saint.  Destroyed by Muslims in 997, a magnificent Romanesque Cathedral was built over the untouched tomb in the 11th century.  Between the 11th and 18th centuries the tomb of St. James became the most popular destination for pilgrimages in all of Europe.

Maryan compared her pilgrimage to our spiritual journey to heaven, with the same “challenges, hardships and sufferings, which are opportunities to come to know Jesus more deeply”.  She explained there is an etiquette on the Way and you are cautious in asking someone their reasons for making the trek.  Only after traveling together for some time is it proper to ask this question, and sometimes the answer might be short and trite, closing off further conversation.  Just as everyone’s journey on the Way is personal and to be respected, so everyone’s spiritual journey to God is unique and sacred.

My pilgrim friend stressed the importance of the yellow arrows guiding you in the right direction.  Sometimes the arrows were hidden down low to the ground in rocks, and sometimes they were on a wall, so the pilgrim had to watch carefully.  Otherwise they would get lost and go in circles, just as sometimes those on their spiritual journey flit from one religion to another, from Zen Buddhism, to Jehovah Witnesses, to Christianity.  They take a circuitous route confused about the right path, while others stride confidently toward their goal, surefooted and certain of their path.

Before pilgrims undertake the path of the Way, they appoint a leader to determine the pace and monitor the limitations of each pilgrim.  The leader will make sure the group takes regular breaks so they don’t get too exhausted before they reach their daily goal.  In our spiritual life we all need a spiritual guide who will point us in the right direction when we get stuck in a valley or wander aimlessly in circles.  Whether you have an ‘official’ spiritual director, or whether your friend or spouse gives you guidance, they can help you stay balanced to make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself by becoming over-involved in church ministry, or neglecting your prayer life.

Just as life can be trying with bouts of cancer, financial problems and family tension, so Maryan’s trek was arduous and painful.  I simply can’t imagine the agony of their feet as she and her husband plodded eight to ten hours a day on dirt paths filled with potholes, rocks and manure.  Maryan described their bone deep weariness at the end of each day, and the sheer relief when her husband rubbed and caressed her cracked and swollen feet with scented lotion.  At the end of their almost month long pilgrimage, when they reached the plaza in front of the Cathedral, Maryan described the power of the Holy Spirit that flowed over her like a fountain, filling her with the realization that only through God’s grace and power were they able to complete their strenuous quest.

Hiking the Way helped Maryan to live in the moment and not anticipate possible pitfalls ahead.  God calls Himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), not a God of yesterday or tomorrow, but a God of today, because He wants us to fully live each moment and not dwell in regrets over the past or fear of the future.  Just as pilgrims on the Way rest regularly, those on their spiritual journey should pray daily and annually attend some kind of retreat to renew and inspire their faith, and refresh their spiritual energy.

Some time ago I was blessed to go on pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, where the Blessed Mother appeared to three children back in 1914 and asked for ‘her children’ to do penance and pray (full message below).  It was a profound experience and for the entire two weeks I felt securely wrapped in God’s loving embrace.  In the evenings the sick would be brought out on stretchers and wheelchairs, and everyone would light a candle while reciting the rosary.  It was a mystical moment when the veil between heaven and earth was opened, and you knew you were in the presence of angels and saints.

As Archbishop Raymond Burke explains, “It is important for the faithful to go on pilgrimage in order to rediscover the extraordinary nature of our ordinary Christian life. Being human, we easily forget the great mystery that is our life in Christ, the mystery that we live every day. When we leave our customary surroundings and make the effort to travel to a holy place, we receive the grace to look anew at our own life in Christ and see more clearly the extraordinary mystery of God’s merciful love in our lives.” (link below)

After we left Fatima we drove by bus to Santiago de Compostella and visited the hallowed shrine.  As I gazed at the sacred tomb containing the holy bones of St. James, it felt as though angels were lifting me up and whisking me to the throne of God.  Later, as I watched pilgrims wearily complete their journey and enter the Cathedral, I felt incredible bliss and had a beatific vision of God pouring out his spirit and approval on His children.  He recognized the physical and emotional cost of their journey and was blessing them in a special way.

Today is a good time to do a spiritual check-up; does God seem distant?  Is your prayer time lackluster?  Is there an area of sin that you are struggling with?  If so, perhaps it is time to expand or change your form of daily prayer; perhaps it is time to attend a conference about your faith or visit your local bookstore for an inspiring book.  Maybe you are called to go on pilgrimage to one of the many consecrated sites all over the world.  The possibilities are endless; from the fascinating Shroud of Turin in Italy, to historic Mont St. Michel in France, to the fabulous cliffs and beach of Nazare, Portugal.  Let’s get started!

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Mary's Garden Gifts and Books Store is a Catholic store located in the Sandy Springs/ Norcross area in Georgia. We have a wide selection of gifts for all the sacraments and for any occasion. Come by or give us a call! Through our blog, we bring you thoughts about prayer, faith, scripture, church doctrine and anything else related to the Catholic faith.


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