Remembering Jim Primosch

One year ago today, the world lost an amazing man: as kind as he was talented, which is a rare combination. Knowing that the mosaic of memory is made one tile at a time, I’m re-sharing a blog post that I wrote after an interaction with Jim in December of 2019. Perhaps those of you blessed to know him can respond with a “tile” (AKA memory) of your own.

The heavenly chorus got a serious upgrade when you changed venues, Jim. Rest in jubilation.

Blessed are the Single-Hearted, for they shall not Multitask.

We’re in the homestretch of Lent, a time when most people’s Lenten resolutions lie in tatters. Many of you have heard me say this before: In Lent, as in the rest of the spiritual life, the goal is not victory, but responsiveness. Success teaches us almost nothing. We learn precious little from perfectly-executed three-point Lenten plans. The most “effective” resolution is one that drives us back into the merciful arms of God, over and over again.

Nevertheless, in case you are feeling some kind of way about how your Lent is going, I thought I’d share a spectacular resolution-fail of my own from this weekend. (You’re welcome.)

Continue reading

A Litany for Lent

I wrote the following litany for this year’s Lent retreats, and offer it now for your personal prayer; feel free to share. For a delightful musical rendition of the Scripture passage below, check out this video by The Porter’s Gate.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
– Matthew 22:37-39

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitation to prayer this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our soul.

As we ponder the Scriptures of the day or a chosen daily devotional . . .
As we carve out moments of solitude to ponder things in our hearts . . .
As a line of a favorite hymn jogs through our mind . . .
As news of war, violence, racism, or hatred drives us to our knees . . .
As the realization of our good fortune turns our thoughts to those with less . . .
As the coo of a mourning dove reminds us of someone who is grieving . . .
As the glimpse of a rainbow signals your promise of hope . . .

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitation to sacrifice this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our mind.

As we forgo customary pleasures to focus on your desires for us . . .
As we consume less . . .
As we reduce our carbon footprint . . .
As we limit our distractions . . .
As we hold our tongues . . .
As we suspend judgement . . .
As we let someone else be right, go first, or get the credit . . .

Lord Jesus, as we notice your invitations to generosity this Lent . . .
Response: May we love you with all our heart.

As we support the charities we love and the causes we value . . .
As we respond to unexpected demands on our time, talent, or treasure . . .
As we meet the needs of someone too embarrassed to express them . . .
As we do a kindness for someone who can never repay us . . .
As we give the best possible interpretation to another’s words . . .
As we open our imagination to new forms of giving . . .
As we resolve to do what we can, with what we have, from where we are . . .

As we give and forgive,
as we turn and return,
hold us in Your mercy, now and forever. 

On Fire, but Not Consumed

There the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

What a remarkable sight: a bush on fire, but not consumed. “I must turn aside to look,” Moses thinks, asking “Why does the bush not burn up?”

On fire, but not consumed. Have you ever experienced this?

Continue reading

Finding God in Sugar-Covered Strawberries

Finding God Abiding comes out three months from today. To celebrate, I’m sharing a chapter which one of my early reviewers told me she loved–despite initially having NO desire to read it, because of the sappy title. (Pun slightly intended.)

Enjoy . . . and kindly consider pre-ordering your signed, personalized copy, which helps me in a lot of behind-the-scenes ways.

Chapter 21

Love never ends. — I Corinthians 13:8

When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to eat a strawberry: after removing the leaves, spear berry with fork, plunge directly into open sugar bowl, pop in mouth, repeat. (It took me years to realize I shouldn’t eat them that way in public.)

Even without the added sugar, my grandmother brought sweetness to so many of my early memories. As the oldest grandchild, I enjoyed the youngest version of her: the grandmother who zipped around town in a Chevy Vega (hot orange, no less), who was always game for a boardwalk roller coaster, and who kept her kitchen stocked with Pepperidge Farm cookies and strawberries ripe for the bowl.

It wasn’t that she’d never known sorrow. In fact, Gram had seen more than her share. Her baby brother perished in World War II and her only son died in his crib. In her fifties, she lost her mother to breast cancer and her husband to cardiac arrest within six weeks of each other. Yet, somehow, those losses didn’t leave a shadow—at least, not one her grandchildren could see. Even after a broken hip at age seventy rendered her fragile, she remained classy, funny, and generous. (“Now, get something you really want,” she always said when taking someone out to dinner; she didn’t want us ordering pizza instead of prime rib just to save her a few pennies.)

The shadow didn’t appear until she turned eighty, when Alzheimer’s began to wage its insidious campaign against her personality. She suffered its assault for seventeen years, dying at age ninety-seven in my aunt and uncle’s home, where she’d lived since it became clear she could no longer be alone.

Hers was a fate most of us dread, yet what strikes me now is how much good Gram continued to do. During those awful years, Gram’s illness became a hub around which many lives revolved, as relatives rallied to provide company and care. For her funeral service, we selected the First Corinthians reading about love because so many of us had become more patient and kind, less self-interested and record-of-wrong-keeping for having been part of the family during Gram’s final years. She lived those virtues until the Alzheimer’s took her volition, at which point she inspired them. The care that flowed back to her was a return of the tide, a response of love to one who had been so steadfast.

Gram’s impact in her decline was not limited to immediate family. One summer during our shore vacation, she was in a phase where she would read aloud anything put in front of her—from fine literature to toothpaste ads—so my mother had packed a book of daily meditations by one of Gram’s favorite saints, Francis de Sales. I spent many afternoons cross-stitching on the couch while she read those beautiful words (and page numbers, and running headers) in her oddly monotone voice. They sank in.

By the end of the two weeks, I had designed a plan for college students to use that book—and, subsequently, others in the series—in a month-long spirituality program that eventually won a national campus ministry award. Each time we ran the program, I made sure my students knew it had been inspired by my grandmother, Mary Florence Reilly: an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s whom God was still using to sweeten everyday life.

Many of us have a great fear of outliving our “usefulness,” but loving my grandmother taught me to measure life’s goodness differently. Whom do you cherish, just for who they are? Bask in imagining being so cherished yourself.


How Do we Honor the Holy Innocents?

The choice of readings for today’s Mass perplexed me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas every year.

On the day we remember the Bethlehem boys aged two-and-under slaughtered by Herod in an unhinged, prophylactic power grab, the Church pairs that account with Psalm 124, beginning with these words:

Had not the LORD been with us,
when people rose against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
for their fury blazed against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us.

How is a psalm praising God for rescue appropriate on the day we remember murdered children?  The Matthew account itself cites Jeremiah’s agonizing description of “Rachel weeping for her children,” refusing to be consoled.  No wonder, if this is the thin consolation offered: that someone else’s child was saved. Mary and Joseph’s child, yes, but still a nightmare to the grieving parents.

The psalm smacks us right up against theodicy and the problem of evil.  “Had not the LORD been with us . . .” What does that imply?  Was God not with the toddlers of Bethlehem?  How do we praise God for rescue (which we should, if rescued) without implying that those who perished were somehow abandoned, unworthy?

There’s a song called “I Know Something About God’s Grace” whose theology drives me batty. The lyrics begin:  I know something about God’s grace; I know something about God’s amazing grace.”  So far, so good; then it runs off the rails. “It could have been me with no food to eat; it could have  been me with no place to sleep, if not for the grace of God.”  I know it’s a musical riff on the common expression “There but for the grace of God . . . ” And yet . . . those guys sleeping on the steam vents in downtown Philly—are they devoid of grace?  Or are they wrapped in it?

Maybe the problem is with our casual use of the word “grace.”  Do we believe that God’s unmerited favor comes in the form of this-worldly bonuses like a Christian comp & benefits package?  Or is grace more interior, like a spiritual attitude adjustment?  OR is grace what holds us up every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not?

Today is not the day to figure that out.  Today is the day to admit that our warm language around grace and blessing leaves a lot of people out in the cold.  Today is the day to figure out how to be a touch of grace for someone else.  Today is the day to stand with the innocents (and the not so innocents) who are in the process of being swallowed alive or otherwise engulfed by the storms of life.  

That’s how we honor the Holy Innocents—today and every day.

P.S. If you are similarly intrigued by these questions, I highly recommend an intense little book by Brother Joe Hoover, SJ called O Death Where Is Thy Sting (see my Goodreads review here), as well as the books, blog posts, and podcasts of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).

Experience Making a Difference

For seasoned volunteers and local nonprofits alike, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps is a match made in heaven.

This summer, Catholic Philly ran an article I wrote about IVC’s Philadelphia/South Jersey Chapter; this week, the Jesuits of Canada and the US posted my article about IVC nationwide–including IVC’s new virtual community. Enjoy!

Lab Work

November is the Month of All Souls, when we lift up our beloved deceased. Today I am remembering Sister Maureen Michael, IHM–a former chemistry teacher at Archbishop Prendergast High School. Although I did not know Sister well enough to call her “beloved” (nor would most students have chosen that particular adjective), our one encounter made a sufficient impression on me to become a chapter in my forthcoming book, Finding God Abiding.

That encounter happened exactly forty years ago this week (most likely November 13, 1981), so it seems worth sharing in advance of publication.

Enjoy the sneak peek!


Finding God in the Chemistry Lab

I had never cut class before. Technically, I wasn’t cutting class; I was hiding in the lavatory trying to recover from a crying jag on my way to lunch. Nevertheless, in my Catholic, all-girls, nun-run high school, being anyplace other than where you were supposed to be was a dangerous business.

A perfect storm of woe had descended on me. The next day was the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death in a terrible accident, and my Algebra II teacher had just returned a test with a big “77” on the front. It was official: My fall semester math grade would not be high enough for Mom to let me try out for the spring musical. Could this day get any worse?

As I struggled to return my face to its normal color with a cool, wet paper towel, suddenly I found myself caught in the icy stare of Sister Maureen Michael, the gaunt, unsmiling chemistry teacher. Where had she come from? More importantly, Why couldn’t it have been a teacher who knew me?

“Come this way,” she said, and marched down the hall to an empty chem lab with me in mute, miserable tow. Unaccustomed to reprimand, I wondered if I might actually pass out. Then something unexpected happened.

Once in her lab, Sister Michael’s face softened. Her eyes grew sympathetic, and she asked, “What’s wrong, dear?”

This unexpected kindness unhinged me. It all came pouring out: my grandfather’s anniversary, the bad grade, the dashed plans. I wept through the whole story, uncertain what was going to happen next.

“I don’t think you need to go to the cafeteria if you don’t want to,” Sister said thoughtfully. “I’m sure you have homework to do. You’re welcome to stay here until the bell rings.” And that is exactly what I did; for the rest of the period, I read a book while Sister Michael graded papers. She didn’t effuse; she didn’t advise. She just gave me what I needed: a safe place to collect myself.

Decades later, I gave a talk on the very stage where I had indeed not performed in the spring musical. I told the students about my crying jag and Sister’s kindhearted rescue. Afterwards, a teacher who had been there forever told me something I had not known at the time: That year, Sister Michael had been fighting a losing battle with cancer. Throughout treatment, she had taught her classes, monitored the halls, and observed her girls. Seeing past the looming specter of her terminal illness, she had looked with compassion on my transient grief, and offered comfort from what must have been a limited store.

That brief encounter was a profound experience of what spiritual writers call “disinterested love.” Disinterested is not the same as uninterested; indeed, it is quite the opposite: passionate interest in another person, in the absence of any self-interest.

As a campus minister, educator, and human being, I have had countless opportunities to “pay forward” the disinterested love I received in my moment of adolescent despair. Some I’ve caught, and some I’ve missed, but I know this: Each new day offers a new chance to practice.

Throw It Aside

During last Sunday’s homily, Fr. Tim Lyons drew my attention to something in Mark’s Gospel that I’d never noticed before.

The healing of Bartimaeus is a deeply familiar tale–despite my having misspelled the man’s name in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding. (Thank God for copy editors!) Until now, however, I’ve always focused more on Jesus than on the man in need of healing.

I love the Lord’s courtesy in this story–asking the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” as if it’s not obvious. Jesus acknowledges that there could be something Bartimaeus wants more than sight. Maybe his mother is ill and he needs money for her care. Maybe he longs for a special someone to see him and return his affections. Why should we assume we know the deepest desire of his heart, if even Jesus politely asks? For that matter, why should we be so sure we know what anyone needs or wants, if we haven’t bothered to inquire?

That’s not where Fr. Tim went, however. Instead, he focused on the action of Bartimaeus, who “threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” Taking off his chasuble, Fr. Tim threw it to the ground several feet away, then asked: If you’re a blind man and you throw your cloak aside, how are you going to find it? What are you betting on?

What are you betting on; I love that! When Jesus says, at the end of the story, “Go your way; your faith has saved you,” maybe he’s not just talking about Bartimaeus’ persistent (and, to the crowd, annoying) cries for the Son of David’s attention. Maybe he’s not just praising the man’s willingness to voice his deepest desire and ask the impossible. Instead, maybe Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ saving faith in the very moment he throws aside his cloak–betting a true daily double on being given the sight to find it again.

“Master, I want to see,” Bartimaeus exclaims.

Do we? Want to see?

How clear do we want our vision to be? And what are we willing to throw aside to get it?

Right now, I’m reading Pope Francis’ pandemic-inspired book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. He divides the book into three sections: A Time to See ~ A Time to Choose ~ A Time to Act. In the first section, Francis suggests that there is something we need to do, if we want to see clearly. “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is,” he insists. “I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins if you want to find a new future” (p. 11).

This echoes something I recently read in Henri Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey, in which he muses about the “new mysticism” of astronauts witnessing the big blue marble of Earth. “The observations made from outer space seem very similar to those made from ‘inner space.’ They both reveal the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of the ‘seer’” (p. 22).

So, how do we make for the margins, the periphery, the edges of existence–assuming we don’t have a spare million in the bank and Jeff Bezos on speed dial?

One way to do it is to peek through windows opened for us by writers, photographers, and journalists–anyone who can bring into clearer focus the reality of life beyond our personal bubble. They, too, can show us the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of those with eyes to see.

In just the first chapter of Let Us Dream, for example, Pope Francis takes us to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and a shanty town in Argentina, to an island in the South Pacific being slowly obliterated by the rising seas of climate change and a small Italian village where fishermen are pulling tons of plastic refuse from the sea. Reading these stories and anticipating more in subsequent chapters I realized that, because Francis is Pope of the whole world, he doesn’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye anywhere. (How does he bear it?)

Where do we find such windows for ourselves? It could be as simple as being mindful about what we read and watch. With a little intentionality, we can resist the “click bait” of stories designed only to intensify our own echo chamber, pausing instead to absorb something that our initial impulse had nudged us to bypass.

Of course, we also make for the margins any time we create space for genuine encounter with someone whose life experience is significantly different from our own. In order to do that, however, we may need to throw some things aside. Preconceived notions. Assumptions of superiority. Any hope of remaining unmoved, unchallenged, unchanged. As I say in Finding God Abiding, “Sight requires proximity, but proximity is not enough. We need insight, and insight requires vulnerability.”

It’s not comfortable. Throw aside the protective cloak of privilege, and we may never find it again.

Or maybe, if we ask God for the grace to see clearly, we won’t need to.