by a friend of the monastery
What do a 9½-week-old German Shepherd puppy, a confessional, scripture passages, Mother Teresa, and Cardinal John Henry Newman have in common?
It was Saturday afternoon and I was in the confessional because of the puppy. She had turned our lives upside down in the short 10 days we’d had her. My husband and I had traveled to upstate New York and back by car in just 5 days to pick her up—a trip of over 3,000 miles—spending each night in a different hotel. Although the puppy’s acquisition was a very conscious and much anticipated one, the drone of the drive, the sleepless nights, and working with her during her waking hours to housebreak her and to capture trainable moments were taking their toll on me. I played out the Martha and Mary story, heaping unspoken blame on my husband for what I perceived was not enough help. I was harboring unkind thoughts, the stress of keeping my angry thoughts to myself had me on the verge of a volcanic eruption, and, of course, in the midst of all this upheaval my prayer life was slowly circling the drain.
So there I sat in the confessional opposite the priest, sharing my frustrations, all the while sadly aware that in my attempt to be Puppy Super-Mom I not only had neglected my regular prayer life but had completely failed to call upon the Holy Spirit throughout this “ordeal.” I saw Father’s lips offer the faintest hint of a smile, and for the first time I saw the humor in the whole situation. This man of God must think I’ve lost my last semblance of sanity! If this scenario is any example, then priests really have heard it all!
For my penance, Father asked me to read and meditate upon the Gospel account of Christ’s rescue of Peter when the Apostle attempted to walk on water (Matthew 14). Isn’t Peter’s cry of “Lord, save me!” and Christ’s immediate stretching out of his hand what happens every time someone goes to Reconciliation? As Father blessed me and I left the confessional I resolved to spend more time on the Gospel passage, but at the moment my sacristan duties called, and before I knew it, it was time for the Saturday vigil Mass to start.
As the Lector read the first reading from 1 Kings 19, I felt eerily as if verse 12 held some special message for me: “…there was a tiny whispering sound.” What was the Holy Spirit trying to tell me? I didn’t have long to wait. As Father’s homily unfolded he drew the connection between Elijah’s trip to the desert cave and Christ’s trip up the mountain to pray after he’d sent the Apostles on their way in their boat. Father convicted many of us that day of not praying as often as we should, not taking the time to quiet down our lives so that we could, indeed, hear the whisper. “OK,” I said to myself, “first thing tomorrow morning….”
“First thing tomorrow morning” became puppy’s first outing of the day. Then came her breakfast and a short training session, after which I quickly got busy with kitchen chores. Engrossed as I was in tending to kitchen cleanup, I almost missed it. Quietly, very quietly, puppy nestled herself at my feet and whimpered once, then twice. I realized that she’d been up past her nap time. She was signaling her need for some quiet time in her crate. What a subtle hint the Holy Spirit sent me: “If you can’t remember your own commitment to me, then I will send you a message in a language you are sure to understand.”
I settled puppy in her crate and then sat down in the morning quiet, intending to read my penance assignment. First, though, I detoured to a book of Mother Teresa’s meditations (Jesus, the Word to be Spoken) and read the thought for the day, 13 August, which this year was the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “We are called upon every day to exercise our priestly ministry of handling the body of Christ in the form of a suffering humanity and of giving Holy Communion to all those with whom we come in contact by spreading the fragrance of his love wherever we go.”
Mother Teresa’s reference to spreading the fragrance of Christ’s love struck a chord. Months ago, Father had handed out prayer cards for penance. On the card was a prayer written by Cardinal Newman, which Mother Teresa had adopted as a daily prayer for her order. The prayer has become one of my favorites. The prayer card rests in my bible at Psalm 32, a Psalm I recite after Reconciliation. Because it is the only prayer card in my bible, my bible often opens automatically to it, and I frequently recite the prayer before doing further reading in my bible. How nice, I thought, as I read Mother Teresa’s meditaion, that I’m finally beginning to recognize some spiritual citations on my own without the benefit of footnotes!
I moved on to a second book of Mother Teresa’s meditations (The Joy in Loving) which I always read in concert with the first one. I opened to the reading for the day, also 13 August, and encountered Cardinal Newman’s prayer yet again with further amplification in Mother Teresa’s own words: “The light, O Jesus, will be all thine; none of it will be mine; it will be you, shining on others through me.”
When I did read Matthew’s gospel—yes, I finally found my way to my penance assignment!—my heart and mind were full, amazed at the journey this “simple” penance exercise had led me on. If a bolt of lightning had struck me that morning, the realization of what I had experienced over the past 12 hours since my trip into the confessional couldn’t have been clearer: Reconciliation, the scripture readings, Mother Teresa’s meditations, Cardinal Newman’s prayer—all helped me understand my sin and how to combat it. It’s very simple, really. Charity begins at home. I needed to lighten up, reconnect with my sense of humor, and get a grip. I needed to forgive myself for my anger. And I needed to transform my anger into a peace that could become a conduit of love. I had to first put myself and my own house in order so that I possessed the love of Christ. Only then could I reflect that love and spread its fragrance to others.
And to think that this “revelation” came so quietly through the mere introduction of a tiny German Shepherd puppy into our household. God truly does use all of His creation to speak to us. Never should we take any of it for granted!
Shortly after I finished my meditation that Sunday morning, my husband offered to relieve me of puppy duty without any prompting from me.