Log in

Recognizing the feast of ashes, boredom and dull moments

“Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.”
—Pope Francis

Many people have morning rituals. Mine include stretching, prayer, a good cup of tea and catching up with on-line news I missed during the night. As might be expected from a person of varied interests — and a grandmother — I am often distracted by other interesting tidbits, like the recent story, ‘The scary truth about what’s hurting our kids.”
As a grandparent, I just had to read it. It was worth the time and underscored the damage social media and an obsession with mobile devices causes to children’s mental health.
The article notes that, among other things, children suffer from an absence of dull moments and are being deprived of the important fundamentals of a healthy childhood, including opportunities for boredom.
As most wise grandparents will share, boredom is a nurturer for children, giving them a much-needed absence of stimulation, a blessed silence, moments when they can hear the whirring of their own minds in creative endeavors, an opportunity for them to hear the whisperings of God instead of the noise of everything else.
Children, like adults, need time to think.
When my husband was a child, before the advent of taking “time out” in some specially designated place in the house after a childish transgression, my mother-in- law, Muriel, wise as she was, doled out the punishment of pulling weeds. No sitting in the corner for my husband or his siblings. They could reflect on their wrong doings and make themselves useful at the same time.
I often wondered if Muriel took her cue from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whom she greatly admired, and who once said, “We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.”
Muriel, who was no shrinking violet, would no doubt have reminded Bishop Sheen that you can’t plant the good seeds until you pull the weeds.
For today’s adults, who are continually lulled into a spiritual malaise by the white noise of a world where the absence of anything is considered deprivation, a time of emptiness devoid of worldly distractions is a feast for the spiritual life.
And so we come to the wisdom of Ash Wednesday and the days of Lent, time set aside in the liturgical year to focus interiorly on our relationship with God, and subsequently, our relationship with others. It is a time to strengthen both, realizing that our relationship with God is meaningless if some good for the other does not flow from it.
Too often, it seems we approach Lent with a serious solemnity, brought about by our sense of suffering through sacrifice. I am guilty of it, as much as at other times I am guilty of having no feelings about Lent whatsoever. I simply go through the motions, wear ashes and purple and convince myself that I am doing Lent because I am making sacrifices.
I have actually learned to do Lent better by watching my grandchildren in those rare dull moments when they are not distracted by toys or technology, when they have been sent outside because they are bored and are soon excitedly gathering stones and pine cones, examining bugs or catching toads and crickets, pulling apart fallen seed packets and planting seeds with great expectations that they will return in a few days to find new seedlings growing. And at the end of their unexpected adventure they run to you and say, “Look what I found!”
That is how I wish to approach Lent, when making sacrifice is a time of discovery, and when an examination of conscience leading to change is an experience of joy.
I want to keep in mind the thoughts of Thomas Merton who wrote, “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.”
— Mary Morrell

'The port from which one sails'

“Then David said to his son, Solomon, ‘Be firm and steadfast. Go to work without fear or discouragement, for the Lord, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or abandon you before you have completed all the work for the service of the house of the Lord.’”  1 Chr 28:20

When my second son began preschool, an experience relished by his five brothers, his reaction was less than enthusiastic. As we approached the brightly painted door that led to his classroom, I felt myself being pulled backward by the pressure of his tiny hand tugging on mine.
Looking down I saw the big brown eyes welling up with tears, a look of fear crossing his flushed face. A kindly, gray-haired woman came out and wrapped her arm around his shoulder, ushering him in to join the other children. As he turned to look at me with wide doe-eyes I was sure the lump in my throat would choke me. I waited for the inevitable with baited breath.
“MOMEEE!” came the blood-curdling scream. It wasn’t so much the word as the
impassioned, gut-wrenching way in which it was delivered that pierced my heart as I tore myself away, leaving him there in the obviously adequate care of his teacher.
New beginnings were not his cup of tea.
And so it is for many of us, even as adults. New beginnings, while often exciting and challenging, also signify endings. With each new beginning we are called to give up the security and comfort of old ways to move forward into the unknown. Even routine, boring or painful daily experiences may be difficult to relinquish because they have become an anchor holding us in place.
Famed author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis uses a familiar analogy to explain the need for change: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
During a conversation with a young man who wished to follow Jesus, but only after the young man had returned home to say good-bye to his family, Jesus explains the importance of letting go of the past: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus was not saying, as it may seem, that the past is something to be forgotten or ignored, but rather, that when the time comes for a decision to be made for the future, the past must take its place as the port from which one sails.
To continue to look back may prevent us from making what one Bible commentary refers to as an “instant decision of purpose” – the kind we must make when God calls us to something new and, often, something frightening.
There are, of course, times when change is not just a matter of decision. It is thrust upon us without warning and without our input. We lose a job, a home or a loved one, and our world comes undone. There is an enormous change that may seem, understandably, insurmountable.
For many people, the most difficult change is one from which none of us can escape – aging. With every new ache or pain, illness or medication we are reminded that,
physically, we are not the same person we used to be.
How do we deal with changes that threaten our peace of mind and heart? This first step is acknowledging that change is the way of life. We cannot escape it, but we can learn from it.
In truth, the most difficult and painful of changes offer the most opportunity for transformation, giving rise to resiliency, flexibility, patience, wisdom and a growing courage.
Those of us who become caretakers of an aging, sick or dying loved one, are just one example of this, often discovering a strength we did not know we had.
Life is changed and so are we, hopefully for the better.
I have found that in moving through the ebb and flow of our lives, we discover that our security is not found in the comfort of the status-quo, but rather in our own strength.
For me, courage and strength come from my faith in God.
And, by the way, my second son who was terrified of preschool, became a teacher.
Mary Regina Morrell is a freelance writer, editor, syndicated columnist, blogger and religion consultant at Wellspring Communications. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Twitter @mreginam6


Book review: 'Things My Father Taught Me about Love'

By Lois Rogers
In her small book, “Things My Father Taught Me about Love,” author, editor and educator Mary Regina Morrell offers a bouquet of insights on faith, spirituality and family life gleaned from her own garden.
Brushed with humor, tenderness and a sense of reverence for the way small and meaningful moments can illuminate life, Morrell’s 54-page book opens the door to her world and bids readers come inside and experience the spiritual gifts of her loving father.
Over the years, she has shared these lessons with readers of her award-winning, syndicated column, “Things My Father Taught Me,” which weaves together insights drawn from life as daughter, wife, mother of six and friend to many.
In what she calls “just a snippet of our lives, a whirlwind of blessing and loss, joy and heartbreak, grief, frustration and accomplishment,” Morrell gifts us with endearing glimpses into her own life and a reflection of our own.
She begins with a simple litany of these gifts which run the gamut from doing good and loving well to laughing often as we embrace the mystery of God.
Traveling with her in the all-too-brief pages, we see the possibilities that emerge as “life unfolds while we are not looking.”
The landscape Morrell creates winds through the garden nurtured by her father which, in turn, inspired her boundless ability to marvel at God’s creation.
It surfaces in a pond full of koi where, leaning over to view the aquatic parade, her own reflection in the water brings to mind the myth of Narcissus – the Greek youth in love with his own image. She notes presciently how this ancient and sometimes fatal character flaw seems sadly to be “flourishing in this day and age.”
It’s a vision that ranges from pathos – Morrell writes movingly of the deaths of her parents – to the joy experienced when the ordinary suddenly becomes  extraordinary; the immeasurable gratitude of a friend, for instance, when one of her six sons bestows upon him a huge container of cannoli cream rescued from the shore bakery where he worked as it closed for the winter.
Morrell’s fluid and approachable style is, in itself, a gift to readers. She’s able to weave a considerable body of knowledge into a book filled with basics that everyone can savor.
In demand as a speaker and catechetical consultant, she begins each entry with a quote, drawing mostly from Scripture, the saints or Catholic apologists including G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Hardy.
Opportunities to pause and enter into prayer and reflection with excerpts from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, provide welcome respite in these troubled times.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred the Messiness of Life,” captured the essence of this book in his endorsement: “If you want to find God, know love and truly understand these are the same, read this beautiful book. But be prepared to have your heart opened up, to laugh and to cry, to take many deep breaths of awe and wonder and to shout out to the Heavens and to the people in your life, ‘Thank You! Hallelujah!’ What a perfect dose of grace this book is for people of all backgrounds.”
“Things My Father Taught Me,” with cover designed by Clara Baumann, is available on Amazon as an e-book.
Lois M. Rogers is a long-time journalist and creator of “Keeping the Feast,” an award winning blog on food, faith and family.
Mary Morrell is a life-long writer who has served as associate director of religious education in the Diocese of Metuchen; assistant editor and catechetical consultant for RENEW International; managing editor of The Monitor, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton, and is author of Angels in High Top Sneakers, Loyola Press. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  • Published in Reviews

Mary: a model for every stage of life

By Mary Morrell

When my first granddaughter was about two years old, she loved to climb, jump and swing – always from the highest point she could manage. Anything a worried grandma like me would fear she loved to do, and my son happily obliged her.
One day he had her by the ankles and was spinning her around as fast as he could. She was screaming and laughing, and I was just plain screaming, “Stop!”
I was worried that his hands would slip or he would trip over his own feet or some other catastrophe would happen. My granddaughter, on the other hand, wanted one thing: “Do it again, Daddy!”
While I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, she wasn’t the least bit afraid. She had complete faith in her father. How like Mary and her unfailing trust in God, I thought.
Mary could have easily thought her life was beginning to spin out of control when the Angel Gabriel visited her to tell her she was going to have a child and not just any child: God’s child.
Just think of the circumstances: She was a teenager, engaged but not married, having to tell her future husband about her pregnancy. How would he respond? Would there be a wedding or would she be ostracized or maybe stoned to death? If, like so many other young women, Mary had imagined her future, this probably wasn’t how she saw her life unfolding.
Then there was the prophecy of Simeon shared when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the temple: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many may be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
These words warn a very young Mary that she will suffer along with her son as He fulfills God’s work.
It has not always been easy for me to relate to Mary. Every image of her I had ever seen was one of youthful, radiant beauty, and holiness far beyond my reach. For us, time quickly takes away the bloom of youth, and our imperfect nature sometimes makes holiness seem inaccessible.
Then, as an adult, I discovered an image that resonated with me and my relationship with Mary blossomed.
On a visit to one of our Catholic schools, I saw a life-size bronze statue of an aged Mary -- as she might have looked as she stood at the foot of the cross, watching her son die a painful death.
She was seated in a chair. Her face had aged, her hair was pulled back in a bun, her hands reflected a life of hard work, but she emanated a beauty that came from wisdom and the experience of living life with all its joys and sorrows.
This is the Mary who persisted, who was resilient in the face of circumstances that she could not control. The Mary I saw before me was a woman of grace who must have gotten tired as we all do when we age, who probably had aching bones and muscles and who sometimes felt overcome with weariness.
Finally, I had found the Mary I could truly relate to.
As I began to see my life in line with Mary’s, I began to see that Mary’s holiness can be our holiness as we try to live our ordinary lives with extraordinary faith.

Originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic.

Gratitude: a wellspring of hope, healing

“In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks.”
-- St. Teresa of Avila

After I had been sick for several weeks, my husband thought a few days away at the shore would give me time to rest.
The hotel was lovely, as was the ocean view, but I was missing my family.
Then we went to eat lunch in the hotel restaurant.
An elderly woman, probably in her eighties, came into the restaurant where the waitress greeted her as if they were friends, asking her if she had had a good winter.
The older woman replied, “Well, not really, but we have to deal with things as they come.” She went on to explain that her daughter had become very ill with cancer during the winter and had died.
The waitress was stunned and unsure about how to respond. “She wasn’t your only child was she?”
The woman, now seated with a young man, shared that she lost her only other child, a son, two years ago. He had a heart attack at the age of 63.
Now I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing one child let alone both children, and within such a short period of time. How did she cope?
A moment later the gray-haired woman smiled at the waitress and said, ”I’m just so grateful to be here with my nephew and for my four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.”
I felt myself getting choked up, but I was beginning to understand.
Later that evening, when we went for dinner, my husband struck up a conversation with our waitress and discovered that she was a single mother of three children, ages 9, 7 and 2. Working at the restaurant was her second job.
“It’s been hard,” she said, “but I was so happy to get this job. My kids are having a hard time adjusting to not seeing me, but I explain to them it’s not a forever thing. The extra money gives me, and them, security for the things we need. I’m very grateful to have been hired.”
There it was again, the one thing that seemed to make the impossible, possible – gratitude – a powerful state of mind that serves as a wellspring for strength, persistence, positivity and growth. Rather than live in their pain and their struggles, these two women made the decision to live in a state of gratitude.
Of course, there is always a need to first work through our grief, our anger and our pain when we are suffering, but eventually there comes a time when we must move forward. Sometimes our losses are so traumatic that we need the support of professionals or others who have been through a similar experience. But when we find ourselves healing, choosing to live in gratitude can be an important step in reclaiming a life of hope and meaning.
Priest and author, Father Henri Nouwen, explains that gratitude is not as much a decision as a discipline: “The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.
“There is an Estonian proverb that says: ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’ Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.”

--Mary Morrell

Looking back over Lents past

“Faith, as Paul saw it, was a living, flaming thing leading to surrender and obedience to the commandments of Christ.”
A. W. Tozer
By Mary Morrell
Wellspring Communications
Looking back over Lents past, I have to admit my most meaningful Lenten experience happened when I spent the week before Easter in the hospital with my youngest son. It was certainly unexpected, but life doesn’t ask you if you’re prepared before it throws the unexpected your way.
After rushing a very ill 18-year-old to the emergency room, I spent the next eight hours waiting for a room, with nothing to do except observe what was happening around us.
During this time, I discovered that there really is no more fruitful place to spend some time journeying toward Easter than in the emergency room.
This is a place to truly experience the suffering of the cross.
Being present in an emergency room places a person in close proximity to the vulnerability of others. Here, amid the woundedness, amid the relationship of sufferers and caregivers, are powerful lessons to be learned.
Just observing how each person dealt differently with suffering was an education for me. There was the young woman, hysterical and in great pain, who was un-consolable until her husband arrived. His presence calmed her immediately.
Then there was a middle-aged man, involved in a car accident, who repeatedly entered into verbal warfare with a person in the room, attempting to place the blame for his injuries on someone else, as if that would make him hurt less. He made caregiving difficult.
But the patient who touched me the most was a little old lady, obviously suffering from some form of dementia as well as physical problems, whose repeated outbursts had the tone of a raspy voiced boxer. Time after time, throughout the course of a very long day, she called out to children who were not there, “Carol, I need my puffer!!”
“Carol, are you listening to me?”
“Carol, you’re killing me here!”
Obviously this woman realized she was totally dependent on others and had no choice except to surrender to their care, but she seemed also to know that surrender didn’t mean giving up the fight.
In fact, after one especially loud round of outbursts, a very wise nurse was heard to say, “She’s a contendah!”
And that she was, but to me she was also an example of the living, flame of faith that surrenders itself to God, and in so doing, gains more strength and more fire.
Still, every once in a while this suffering woman with the cartoon-character voice would lose her feistiness and plead with an absent son: “Help me, please, please, please!”
It was at those times that her anger would give way to the vulnerability that is manifest when a person acknowledges his or her needs. This is the time when true strength rises in the heart of a person, a time when we are strong enough to be humble.
Watching those around us in the emergency room was a reminder to me that pain is inevitable, and that the only way back to peace and joy is to walk through the pain, as Jesus did on the way to Gethsemane.
But a lesson was confirmed for me during what would be some very long days and nights in the hospital: The surest way though pain is with love—whether it is the self-giving of family or friends, the compassionate presence of a priest, or the exceptional care of nurses or doctors who make a person feel as if they really do matter.
A wise bishop once told me that Easter was the greatest love story ever told. With that in mind, it would be a blessing during this Lenten season to walk with another person through his or her suffering and see our love give rise to the amazing grace of resurrection in another’s life.

Rules of engagement

“No road is long with good company.” Turkish proverb
Every great relationship needs someone to initiate the conversation to get things going.
Great personal advice? Certainly, but on the website where I found this quote, “start the conversation” was the first of several tips on how to improve your social media engagement.
Be attentive, spark intrigue, know your audience, have a sense of humor, share compelling data – translate those into rules to improve personal relationships and your friends and loved ones will be happy.
If we followed the rules of engagement for social media marketing in our personal relationships, whether with family, friends, or even with God, we would be making real relationship headway.
But our culture has become such that we are more comfortable engaging with technology than we are with other people.
Recently I came across a video of a popular Italian-American comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco. He was new to me, but the topic of his act caught my eye -- The doorbell rings: then verses now.
He described how when the doorbell rang 20 or more years ago, the whole family jumped up and went to the door, delighted they were to have company. Mom brought out a store bought cake she was saving for just such an occasion. A pot of coffee was made and life was good.
Today, he demonstrated, when the doorbell rings, everyone drops to the floor and is shushed by parents into silence. Dad mouths the words, “Did you invite anyone over? Who invited someone over?” He commands somebody to grab the sword from under the couch and instructs mom to do the army crawl out of the kitchen so whoever is at the door won’t see movement and know someone is home.
The performance loses a lot in a simple text translation, but I had tears from laughing. All comedy is an exaggeration of some kind, but for me this skit rang true. When I was young we didn’t hesitate to open the door when the bell rang.
We didn’t have store-bought cake but my mom always had a box of Jiffy muffin mix ready to pop into the oven. The white and blue Corelle Ware percolator was ready on the counter for the unexpected guest and we often had family and friends popping in just to visit.
Today, when the doorbell rings we know instinctively it’s not a visitor. Everyone is too busy, and you just don’t drop in on people in this day and age. You make an appointment. If there’s someone at the door, it is probably someone proselytizing, a salesman, a utility company coming to turn off your service, or the mailperson needing a signature on a certified letter, which is never good.
Because we live in an age of fear, we now have security systems built into our doorbells just in case a visitor is really a criminal casing the house. I mean, who else would be stopping by without calling first?
Social isolation, including isolation from God, has become a reality for us in a time of increased social media use. While technology is speeding ahead in light years and employees are required to stay abreast of the latest and greatest, our real honest-to- goodness facetime with the people in our lives is being tossed aside like yesterday’s android phone.
The truth is we cannot have healthy relationships without investing time and presence. We need both for our loved ones and for God.
A friend of mine shared some of her dad’s wisdom as he reached the end of his life. He said it was important to get your priorities straight – God, family and work, in that order.
The great thing about God is you don’t need to call ahead and He loves company.

--Mary Morrell
  • Published in Diocesan

Advent is a time for awakening to the divine mystery of Christmas

“The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music
and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ.”
--Father Edward Hays

It’s amazing how fast things can be done today.

I ordered some photos from my local pharmacy through their on-line sight and was in the store picking them up 15 minutes later. Another customer came up behind me and asked about a passport photo. Five minutes later she was done, and while paying for the picture she struck up a conversation with me.

“Sometimes I think things move too fast,” she said, admitting that while she was happy her errand did not take too long, she often felt a great need to slow things down. She was especially feeling rushed into the Christmas season: “I’ve been seeing Christmas decorations and ads in the store since October so I keep thinking I’m falling behind in my preparations and need to get my tree up and my house lit as soon as possible. Then I remember we haven’t even celebrated Thanksgiving yet.”

We agreed that time is truly the thing we need to treasure if we are to hold on to the true spirit of Christmas.

In his book, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac,” Father Edward Hays, reminds us, “Take time to be aware that in the very midst of our busy preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in ancient Bethlehem, Christ is reborn in the Bethlehems of our homes and daily lives. Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary yet is wondrously present.”

It’s a beautiful thought, we might say, but how are we supposed to make it happen?

Enter Advent.

There’s no better opportunity to reclaim our time and our focus than this prayerful four-week period of spiritual preparation for the Prince of Peace, who seeks to enter not only our homes one day a year, but to live continually in our hearts.

But first we must make room.

This can happen, as Father Hays suggests, through a daily Advent examination. "Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or
educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search
the deep, dark corners of our hearts.”

When we strive to leave the light on for Christ, we are better able to transform the commercialized Christmas that plagues us into our own experience as shepherds, kneeling in wonder with Mary and Joseph at the manger, before running with joy to all who will listen to tell
them our Savior has been born.

That’s one of the reasons why I look forward to the beginning of Advent. It’s the time we put up our large homemade manger on our front lawn. Coming home each day I am continually reminded that I am – we are – part of the Nativity story.

It helps me keep things in perspective.

Mary Morrell is a freelance writer, editor, syndicated columnist, blogger and religion consultant at Wellspring Communications. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Twitter @mreginam6.
  • Published in Diocesan
Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bishop's Fund Annual Appeal