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My sister, a mother to five children, was having a particularly difficult day of parenting. Giving in to the frustration and feelings of powerlessness, she raised her voice at her children, slammed a few doors, and angrily stomped her feet on every step as she made her way down the stairs. And amid her meltdown, she happened to look up. Hanging on the staircase wall was the most peaceful portrait of Mary, the Immaculate Conception. My sister paused, took in a long, deep breath, and exclaimed, “What are you looking at? You had one kid, and He was perfect!

It can feel this way, can’t it? We can try to make excuses for our sin because Jesus was perfect (and how can we live up to that!), and we could make the same excuse that Mary was also perfect. Surely, if you or I were conceived without the stain of original sin, we would never raise our voices at our children! We would float around the house in a flowy blue dress, hands folded in prayer, wearing a permanent smile while smelling like roses! Unfortunately, Eve messed everything up. My sin is her fault. Not mine. And honestly? Who can relate to Mary, anyway? That’s an impossible standard that leaves me feeling more discouraged and hopeless than I already feel. Obedience to God was easier for Mary.

That’s what I used to think. Until Mary appeared to me.

She didn’t appear in the way that you might think. I didn’t have a vision of Our Lady. She didn’t show up in my laundry room floating on a cloud. And yet, she has been profoundly present. She has been the quiet comfort when pierced with the sword of a life I did not plan. She has been the gentle nudge in the right direction when fear and anxiety tempt me to choose my way. She has been the warm embrace when I find myself staring at another prayer having gone (seemingly) unanswered. She is the presence of something greater to come when life in this world feels weary and bleak. And maybe you are wondering how I can be so sure this is Mary if I have not seen her with my eyes? It’s a good and fair question. And I have a good and fair answer.

Relationship.

Mary, the Immaculate Conception, whose feast we celebrate today, is as Father Peter Cameron writes, “the living, breathing conception of God’s ineffable goodness, truth, beauty, fidelity, compassion, justice, mercy, peace and love.”[1] The closer I grow in relationship with Mary, the closer I grow in relationship with her Son. And this, my friends, is what our faith is all about. Relationship. It is the very thing the serpent went after to destroy in the garden of Eden and what God ingeniously restored through the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The very grace and holiness that God offered to Mary is offered to us as well, and it is through the Immaculate Conception that we are invited back into relationship with God! You might be wondering how. How does one get to this level of grace and holiness? How does one foster a relationship with God the Father and Mary the Blessed Mother? The answer is prayer.

Let me ask. Do you hate that answer? Do you find it unhelpful? Because I used to. I knew I was supposed to be praying, I just wasn’t sure how. Plus, I am a perfectionist and a control freak and wanted some kind of "in my hands" proof that what I was doing was right. And while God doesn’t give prayer receipts to shove in the back of my Bible as evidence, I have discovered something that is even more effective and gratifying than a paper receipt. Prayer journaling. In my closet, I have a stack of over twenty journals filled with the longings, sorrows, joys, and hopes of my heart (give or take a few grocery lists). These empty pages are where I dump it all out—the clutter and the fear and all the things that tempt my mind to wander when I sit down for some quiet time with the Lord. Once I have unraveled my mind, I can be fully present to God, offering Him an open heart, ready to receive. Prayer journaling, which I believe is prompted by the Blessed Mother, has been my guide into a deeper relationship with the Lord.

Why do I say prompted by the Blessed Mother? Because Mary pondered. Mary thought deeply about the circumstances in her life. Mary considered all things and treasured them in her heart. Mary held every situation up against the backdrop of God’s promises, which she knew to be true. This is precisely what happens when I prayer journal! More than a list of wants and needs I hand over to the Lord, journaling allows me to create a sacred space of receptivity. It allows me to sort out the lies in my head, guiding me to the truth of who God is. As Lisa Brenninkmeyer writes, “prayer journaling is how I transition from my perspective to His.”[2] Who lived life from God’s perspective better than Mary?

I had a parenting day similar to the one my sister had just the other day. I was sideswiped by a child in crisis, and those familiar feelings of powerlessness and frustration got the best of me. I can honestly say I was free-falling fast into despair; my worst case scenario thoughts steering me straight into a brick wall. And then Mary appeared to me. No, not in a vision, but as a gift in my mailbox! The new Walking with Purpose guided prayer journal, Praying from the Heart, miraculously arrived at the moment I needed it. (Because moms are like that. They anticipate their children’s needs.) And I wish we could sit face to face over a cup of coffee and pore over the pages of this journal together, because, my friend, it is unlike anything you have ever seen. If Our Lady were to create and use a journal, this would be it! And on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, you can bet that my first entry will start with praise and adoration for a God who loves me so much to give me such a mother as Mary. As Father Cameron so beautifully says, “In Mary the Immaculate Conception we are given a corrected conception of the image of God: The Mother takes all our fear away in the way that only a mother can.”[3]

Thank you, Immaculate Mary, for always looking out for me, taking all my fear away, and guiding me to pray from the heart.

[1] Father Peter Cameron, Mysteries Of The Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces, (Servant Books, 2010), p. 17.
[2] Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Praying from the Heart: Guided Journal, (Walking With Purpose, 2020), p. 4.
[3] 
Father Peter Cameron, Mysteries Of The Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces, (Servant Books, 2010), p. 17.

Bible Study

I crawled out of bed while it was still dark, turned on the pre-set coffee maker, let the dog out, lit my candle, and started a fire. The significantly colder air and naked tree branches were doing their best to take my focus off the present peace, tempting my mind to jump ahead to what I dread: winter. I am not a fan. 

It has been ten years now that the dark and barren months of winter trigger inner and outer unrest; both a spiritual and physical fight for me to not give in to despair and to hold onto hope. Because I recognize this war within, I know what I must do. This morning, as I eyed the dying leaves that blanketed the ground below me, as if whispering, “keep looking down,” I got myself close to the fire, breathed in the silence, dug into my pocket, and pulled out my rosary. 

And it whispered, “keep looking up.”

In the pitch black, with only flickering flames for a light, I opened my scriptural rosary book and began to pray the Glorious Mysteries. This sweet book is a new favorite because it includes the virtues associated with each Mystery, in addition to a short reflection, prayer, and one simple question to help bring you into deeper union with Jesus. On the second Glorious Mystery, the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven, my eyes fell upon its virtue, and peace rushed in, flooding my soul. The virtue of hope. And following was this question: Do I put all of my hope in heaven, or do I live for this world? 

I closed my eyes and placed myself next to our Lady, pondering this question in my heart. Our Blessed Mother’s entire life was a journey of hope. From the Annunciation to Calvary, she models perfect faith and obedience, without complaint or resistance to the cross she had been handed. She did not attend the crucifixion of her son to run away in fear or walk away in despair because Jesus did not turn out to be the king she had hoped He would be. Mary participated in the Cross, sharing in the sufferings of her son, watching and standing, her focus always on heaven. Mary never surrendered her hope.

And I am wondering where you might be today. Are you watching and standing? Are you focused on heaven? Or have you surrendered your hope?

I have had my heart shattered by two devastating crosses; crosses of tragic loss and heart-piercing disappointment, both of which were accompanied by a heavy dose of fear. When everything was chaos and all appeared meaningless, it is this virtue of Mary’s—her heroic hope—that saved me. You see, Christian hope is not a wish but a confident and joyful expectation that the promises of Christ will be fulfilled. This is a hope that doesn’t disappoint; a hope that protects us from becoming paralyzed by fear and discouragement when things do not go our way. This is the virtue that keeps heaven before us through our earthly trials; the whisper of Mary that encourages us to keep God in His rightful place and to keep looking up. 

Easier said than done, right? Personal and worldly troubles will never cease to tempt us to take our eyes off Christ. The enemy of our soul takes great delight in watching us as we let go of God and reach for the lesser things of this world to anchor us. Friends, do not fall for this. Only Jesus Christ is our anchor. Divine hope comes from the Cross. Our hope is found in Christ alone. He has the power. He is almighty. He is sovereign. He is good. He is our cornerstone. He is our stronghold. He is called Faithful and True. He is the One that even the waves and winds obey. He is a good Father who keeps His promises. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and He is always in control. ALWAYS. And I know you have heard all of this preached at you before, and you have probably been bombarded by similar words on social media. But let me ask...do you believe it?

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”[1]

Mary had hope because she believed. If we want to be like Mary, courageous to the extreme, filled with the Holy Spirit, and rocking the virtue of hope, we need to run to her, and we need to run now. We are not walking alone in this hurting and broken world. We have a mother in heaven. A mother who desires to bring us into deeper union with her son. A mother who has felt and sees our pain, takes our hand, and points us to Jesus. She protects us beneath her mantle and intercedes on our behalf, as she kicks the leaves from our feet and uncovers the ground, lifting our chins up to heaven while whispering, “keep looking up.”

Praying that we, like Mary, keep looking up, recklessly hoping for the world to come.

Your sister in Christ,

Laura

P.S. If you were unable to join Lisa Brenninkmeyer on the Rosary Call for Our Country, you can watch and listen here anytime. The Rosary is our greatest weapon and our quickest remedy to despair. If you are low on hope, my friend, run with me to our Blessed Mother.

[1] Gospel of Luke 1:45 NASB

Bible Study

Every summer when I was a kid, we’d all pile into the back of the station wagon to make the two-day, endless, no end in sight, drive to Hilton Head Island. There were no seat belts. There was no technology. There were no snacks (because back in the day there was no kitchen in the car, and we were sturdy enough to survive without a snack every 20 minutes). We learned how to entertain ourselves by leafing through books, looking out of car windows, and searching for the alphabet on highway signs and license plates. And every 10 minutes or so we inevitably asked, “Are we almost there yet?”

Life sort of feels like that right about now. I swear, the 5k Fun Run I didn’t want to sign up for, and planned to walk anyway, has turned into a marathon that I am forced to sprint and comes with no finish line. Good grief, is it just me, or did the race officially just get too long? The uncertainty of the future mixed with the fear of “what is to come” is brewing stronger than that third pot of coffee we shouldn’t have made. And yet, here we all are, reaching for another cup, wondering why we can’t shake the queasiness and involuntary twitching.

Has your zeal to emerge stronger finally given way to weariness?
Has your hope been buried somewhere beneath that pile of canceled plans?
Has that positive outlook you put on like a champ taken its last breath, along with your dream of everything going back to normal this fall?

And I am not sure what it was that finally broke me. Maybe the hurricane and loss of power and water? Or was it the announcement that my kids would be attending school for only two days a week? Or perhaps the laptop that decided right now would be the perfect time to have a nervous breakdown? (Or was that me?) Whatever it was, something was added to the pile of disappointment and fear, and I finally threw my hands up to the Lord and demanded to know, “Are we almost there yet?”

We all have this desire to know the future, don’t we? That urge to pick up the veil and take a peek. And at the root of this desire? Fear. We want to know how much longer, when will this end, and what will become of us, as if we would be satisfied with the answer; as if knowing the date were the true remedy for the peace our hearts lack. These are the weeds, sprouted from seeds of fear, that thrive and grow in our cluttered minds. If only we were as good at keeping our life-giving thoughts as alive as we were these! And yet, all hope is not lost. 

Two weeks ago I began leading a group of over 50 women in Marian Consecration; 33 days of seeking to know Jesus and offering Him our hearts, by way of Mary. Our Lady was most obedient to the will of God without any certainty. She never asked, “How long, Lord?” She never demanded to see more than one step ahead. Mary is our perfect model for such a time as this, offering us three practical and prayerful ways to handle the fear of uncertainty and temper our need to know what comes next. 

1. Trust the Word of God

This young maiden at the Annunciation agrees to an unimaginable invitation, without certainty or details of the future. The ardent desire of Mary’s heart to do the will of God trumped the desire for more information and put her fear to rest. How do we know she was afraid? Because the angel commanded her, “Do not be afraid.” But it isn’t enough for us to be told “do not be afraid,” is it? In fact, for some of us today, being told to quit being so scared can feel insensitive and unhelpful. This is why what Father Peter Cameron observes about Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is so important: “Why were the angel’s words to be trusted? Because when Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Luke 1:30), she stopped being afraid. The Word of God transfigured her. What the angel announced to her corresponded with the deepest longings of her humanity.”[1]

We, too, can be transfigured by the Word of God. 

2. Resist the Urge to Go Back to Egypt

When the journey started to feel too long for the Israelites and complaining got the best of them, they looked back to what they had left behind. And I get it. When there’s no end in sight, you forget that God has a plan and you just want to go back to how things used to be—even if they weren’t that good. With each new obstacle, and report of another cancellation, it is tempting to respond with frustration, anger, and doubt. This is why I turn to Mary. From the moment she gave her fiat, it was one obstacle after the next. Leave your hometown, give birth in a stable, flee to Egypt...I mean, seriously! Had the Scriptures read that Mary jumped off that donkey and ran back home crying to her mother, we’d all be like, “I get you, girl.” But she didn’t. Because of her trust in God’s Word, Mary’s response was always one of heart-pondering.[2] She did not run backward, but remained in place, pondering God’s will in that moment.

We, too, can be at peace in the moment by developing a posture of heart-pondering prayer.

3. Keep an Upward Perspective

Because of her pondering, Mary lived beyond the right here, right now. Her constant disposition was one of faith, and her heart was set firmly on the goal of life: Heaven. When fraught with fear, this is too easily forgotten. If our focus is more on the race than it is on the prize, we will drop dead from exhaustion. This race requires perseverance, not perseFEARance. We must put on our blinders, turn off the world, and keep looking upward.

We, too, being created for heaven, can live in a gesture of looking upward.

Are we almost there yet? That is not for us to know. But God gives us a Mother to wait with; a Mother who teaches us in this moment to trust the Word of God, keep a heart-pondering attitude, and to go beyond our present circumstances as we keep looking upward. 

When uncertainty disturbs your peace, remember these three things. When fear grips your heart, behold your Mother.

[1] Father Peter John Cameron, O.P.,  Mysteries Of The Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces, (Servant Books, ST. Anthony Messenger Press, 2010), p. 43
[2]  Luke 2:19, 51

Bible Study

 

Have you ever carried a large statue of Mary, up hill, in a trash bag, in the snow? I haven’t either, but I did watch a student do this very thing a few years ago when I helped lead a college mission trip to Peru. Our trip leader told us that it wasn’t supposed to rain, let alone snow, so many of us, coming from Texas, packed nothing more than a light fleece to combat the chill of the Andes mountains. 

When we arrived in Macusani, Peru (14,000 ft elevation), I immediately regretted not packing something heavier. We were teaching faith formation to young children in the village after sunset, and it was freezing. I had no idea that it would be the weather that made this mission trip so internally difficult. Every night all fourteen of us would return from teaching and huddle around the stove fire until our soup warmed up. We would eat our soup in a freezing room, and then run to our beds where the warmth of our blankets awaited. 

About a week after our arrival, my mission team and I sat in the courtyard soaking up a bit of sunlight before traveling up the hill to teach our evening classes. The plan for that night was to do a quick lesson in the chapel and then head to the street for a rosary procession around the neighborhood. Since no procession is complete without a statue, we had borrowed a statue of Mary to bring for the occasion. In late afternoon the clouds rolled in, and by the time we were packing up to leave, it had started to snow. It had started to snow a lot. 

We were not prepared for this sort of weather so we considered canceling that night’s catechesis. I was STRONGLY on the side of canceling. No one had the proper clothing, it would be dark, we could get sick, and we could do it tomorrow. I came with as many reasons to cancel as possible, and every single one was valid. Nevertheless, our trip leader insisted we still go. He told us these children were used to adults not showing up for them, and that we were going to be different. We would show up even if it was hard.

 It would be nice to say that I rose to the occasion with heroic generosity, but that was not the case. My participation was half-hearted. It was tiring being so cold for so long, and my desire to be comfortable again was strong. Begrudgingly, I layered on my thin clothing, and we started walking up the hill. It was then, looking up the dark road, that I saw her. There she was: Our Blessed Mother traveling with us, on a student’s back, in a trash bag. If she could do it, I could do it.

When we arrived at the chapel, I expected it to be empty. The kids could have stayed home, but they didn’t. Almost all of them were there, enthusiastically awaiting our arrival. We did a short lesson, decorated a procession altar, hoisted Mary on top, and headed for the street. For the next forty-five minutes, we walked through dark streets no longer lit with electricity, in a blizzard with Mary held high, reciting the rosary not once but twice. Let’s just say I was more enthusiastic about saying the first rosary than the second!

After our procession ended, we told the kids goodnight and headed back to eat. Over dinner, our trip leader, who has led many mission trips down to Peru, casually mentioned that the area of the village we had just left had been experiencing demonic activity. “Wait a minute, demonic activity?” I thought to myself. I stopped eating and let the comment sink in as repentance flooded my heart. Clearly, God had a plan that was much bigger than my desire for comfort.

With no power, the village stood in complete silence. The only sound to be heard was the sound of the rosary filling every corner of the streets. The good Lord had used our voices to reclaim His town. Thank God I was not allowed to choose comfort that night! Thank God I was not allowed to stay home! Thank God that someone stronger than I decided that we would be generous; that we would push through when it would have been ok not to. The parents of those kids would have simply told them that we had to cancel because of the weather. We would have been more comfortable for sure, but we would have missed out on what God wanted to do that night through our commitment to Him. 

As I sit in the chapel today, years later, I read the verse before the gospel in the daily readings: “Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart and yield a harvest through perseverance.” The Lord multiplies our generosity and creates miracles through our perseverance. Too often, the comfort we choose is the barrier to His movement in the world. I am always asking God to use my life for His glory, but when the rubber hits the road, I choose to stay comfortable. I make excuses for why I can’t push through to see what He wants to do on the other end. 

We are in the last weeks of Lent, and if you are anything like me, by now you are over it. You are tired of sacrificing, or maybe you have given up altogether, hoping next year will be better. What if instead of retreating back to comfort, we asked our Lord for the grace to push through with hearts of generosity and perseverance? What if He still wants to do something in us and through us in this season of sacrifice? Don’t give up just yet; the Lord may have a miracle waiting for you right on the other side of your comfort.

Mallory

 

I always found it to be a little ridiculous that my mother gave all three of her daughters the same middle name, or a variation of it: Mary.  We are Kathleen Mary, Lisa Marie, and Laura Mary. With so many names to choose from, why so many Marys?

As I prayed with today's Gospel, Matthew 28:8-15, I laughed out loud as I read the first verse. “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce the news to his disciples.” Did you catch that? The other Mary. Why so many Marys?

Growing up, I really only knew about one Mary. The Mary. Our Blessed Mother. And it was not until my reversion to my Catholic faith that I discovered the gift of all those Marys; that blessed day of brokenness when I realized that life was not about getting over my mess so I could reach fulfillment, but rather, it was about resting smack in the middle of it, and allowing Jesus - the fulfillment -  to meet me there.  All those Marys taught me this.

How blessed we are with this rich Catholic faith of ours, and the incredible examples of women witnesses that have journeyed this hard but beautiful life before us. Because I don't know about you, but sometimes? Sometimes my mission as a woman just doesn't feel like it is enough. Sometimes my role as woman feels a little bit “less than.” Sure, I can keep the house clean (of course, this all depends on what your definition of clean is) and I can get the kids off to school, and put in a load of laundry, and work a job, all while tending to broken pre-teen hearts, and encouraging weary souls, and praying in the quiet for my family, unceasingly. But at the end of the day, so much of what I do feels so incredibly unseen. So much of what I pour out, seems to go completely unnoticed. And so I often go to bed  wondering, does anything I do truly make a difference? Does anything I give really matter?

Do you ever do this? Do  you ever reduce your role as mother, sister, daughter, friend, wife, woman, to an ordinary calling with no real value? Do you ever sit back and look at your life and fear that the mission you are on as a woman just doesn't compare? That you can not possibly understand how rocking an inconsolable baby for hours, or driving your unenthusiastic child to religious education, or simply sitting and listening to your strong-willed teenager's very different view of God, will ever earn you a part in the salvation story?

Those nights I hold tight to my rosary beads and doubt there is purpose in my mission, I remember all those Marys. I close my eyes, and I place myself in their story. I sit on the edge of the bed with Mary, the angel Gabriel before us, and I learn to receive the message, to accept my Father's will, to say “yes” to the unknown. I kneel down on the ground with Mary of Bethany, at the feet of my Lord, and I learn how to sit and be quiet; I learn how to listen, how to pour out everything I have because He is all that I need. And I run away from the tomb quickly with Mary Magdalene, learning that my sins are forgiven, my Savior has risen, and that He has blessed me, a woman, with the mission to announce this glorious news to the world.

While the world's instructions for women to prove their dignity and earn their freedom and joy are shouted out loud- go out and march, hold up a sign, use whatever language you want to make your point -  all those Marys teach us so differently. Of course, if the cause is in line with what God asks of us, marching and sign-holding and using your voice is perfectly acceptable and greatly encouraged (you just might want to tweak that language a bit, especially if dignity is something you are after). But why we have come to believe that a woman who sits and listens and follows God's will is passive and weak is beyond me and truly, a great tragedy. Maybe it is because we think nothing will get done if we sit still. Or maybe it is because we have waited for Jesus to show up in the past, and well, He never did. At least not in the way we expected.  Or maybe we feel like all those “hidden victories” we accomplish each day count for nothing, if nobody but Jesus sees them. If that resonates with you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Lisa Brenninkmeyer's study, Discovering Our Dignity, and opening to chapter 20, Mary of Bethany.  Known as the Mary who “chose the better part,” you might be surprised to learn that there were times in her life, just like in yours, when faith did not come so easily, when Jesus did not show up in time, when the pain was too much, when life was unsettling. How often we write off the great women in the Bible as ancient and unrelatable. How often we miss the fact that these women were heroic, that these women were strong, that these women were necessary, that these women are us.

Last year I decided to use my middle name, Mary. No longer ridiculous, I now see the beautiful gift my mother gave me, naming me after all those Marys. And on this Easter Monday, it might be good for us to reflect on all these Marys. Just because we fasted for 40 days and the baskets were filled with goodies and eggs on Sunday, and we wore that Easter spring dress we bought despite the fact that there might still be snow on the ground...there is the chance that maybe we are not quite worthy of this celebration just yet. That maybe, we still have some stones in our hearts that need to be rolled away. Maybe we still have some sitting and listening to do. Maybe we have not yet poured everything out, so that we could be filled up with only Him, so that our homes permeate the sweet fragrance of a wild and boundless love. And if that is the case, that is okay. That is better than okay, actually. Because God loves us in our mess, He meets us on our way, He delights in nothing more than when we are broken at His feet.

This, I learned, from all those Marys.

Laura

Regional Area Coordinator
Read Laura's blog here: http://www.lauramaryphelps.com/

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