Reflections on Journalist James Foley

This August, I am reading a lot online about the events taking place in Syria and Iraq right now. Through those newsfeeds, I have learned about a guy I would have loved to have known.

His name is James Foley and his parents got a phone call from Pope Francis last week, expressing his sorrow and empathy over their son’s passing away. I know that there are videos online in which people can watch the actual event of his passing away. Thank God, I have not seen it yet. I accidentally saw a related sick photo online today and regret that. Here is something I read this evening which gives a great reason for not watching that video, as ubiquitous as it is:


From the website for the publication “Brooklyn Magazine”:

The intent of the … video is to strip James Foley of his humanity, to turn him into a symbol. It is an act that Foley’s own work was dedicated to combating, reflected in the Carl von Clausewitz quote he chose as a subtitle for his blog: “War is fought by human beings.” We can pay tribute to him best by refusing to participate in the twisted one-act play, this allegory that his killers have scripted for us. He may have been killed because he was an American or a journalist, but his death is not a blow against just those groups—it is an affront to every single one of us.

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.

I will not watch the video, but a still image of the video, in which he is shown kneeling on the ground, has come up a lot on my computer today, so I have decided to take some time to learn a little bit about his life.

In the still image, I have spent time looking at his face and I see someone who has his head up and his eyes closed. I have read that he prayed when held prisoner and kept the spirits up of those in captivity with him. I am sorry for his loved ones’ loss. I am sure he was one in a million and their hearts are broken. I know I did not know him and I have no idea what that moment was like for him, but I see his dignity in his posture.

I read an interview he did with his alma mater, a Catholic college in Milwaukee. It seems that service trips he went on in high school and college made him decide to spend time with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Kolkata, serving the poorest of the poor there. It seems he was not married and that he had dedicated his life to telling the story of the poor and suffering, as a journalist.

He must have been an extraordinary person, though, who followed what had to have been a true calling from God. From james foleywhat I can tell, a calling is something that a person feels they must do and they do it well while most people would not do it for any amount of compensation. I know that is a simple way to put something so mysterious, but it is the way I’ve seen genuine callings played out in peoples’ lives for many years now. I went to Kolkata too, thinking that maybe that was my calling, but in the midst of such suffering and poverty, I only experienced desolation there. I could not handle being around so much suffering. He must have experienced some sort of consolation there, just as Mother Teresa did, and I’m sure he brought a lot of smiles to that dark place and to all the dark places he went since then. Clearly, I do not have what it takes to follow the same path he was called to follow, but, as a fellow 40 year old who loves people, I appreciate his integrity and his dedication to his call.


As a fellow Christian, I think about a warm reception heaven has for him and the other folks he’ll “meet” in heaven who get him and can relate to his calling which was so unusual and so dangerous. God bless his family and God give them comfort.



Here’s a link to the family’s official website:

Here is a link to some of his work


Here is the text of a letter to his family which he asked a soon-to-be-released hostage to memorize for him:

“I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison,” he said. “Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart. I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”



Silence, Solitude and Simplicity: An Interview with a Franciscan Contemplative Sister

allegany motherhouse
Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York Motherhouse

Along with the three other women who are part of her “community within a community”, Sister Carol participates in  morning prayer and Eucharist  along with my summer community (students and professors of the Franciscan Institute.) This is how we have gotten to know each other.  I first met Sister Carol in the summer of  2004 and have enjoyed little visits and conversations with her here and there over the years. In addition, I have spent several Thursday afternoons standing in the town square of Olean, NY with a sign around my neck that says, “Praying for Peace” as part of their weekly vigil.  My own life has a lot of transition so I like seeing these same women in this same place, summer after summer, with their kind smiles, hugs and warm welcomes.  Their constancy and stalwartness are a comfort to me.  After morning prayer last week,  I sat down to interview her and to  learn more about her life in the “Ritiro”. I think you’ll enjoy learning more too.

Sister Carol at the Ritiro
Sister Carol at the Ritiro

The Ritiro is a place set apart for those who feel called to a contemplative lifestyle within an active congregation. Sister Carol told me this is one of few Ritiros in the United States. I should back up and say that it is part of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. The Ritiro, then is like a community within a community. Living the way of life of the  Ritiro is a core group of women. Their main activity is prayer. The Ritiro began in the 1950s when it was noticed that many sisters of the congregation were attracted to the contemplative life. As Reverend Mother Jean Marie oversaw the building of the new Motherhouse in Allegany, NY, she made sure it had a  space set apart for those who wanted to live out the contemplative lifestyle (kitchen, chapel, etc.). In the beginning, it was a strict cloister,  containing all the elements and practices of a cloistered community including a window through which Sisters would visit with their families occasionally.  With Vatican II’s encouragement to communities to get in touch with their founders, they rediscovered the practice of the contemplative lifestyle as lived out by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi and allowed that to shape and inform their life together.  Theirs is different from Poor Clare communities, which is a monastic form of life.

Joining the core community of four sisters, other Sisters come to the Ritiro for a day, a week or a month.  It is a life of “friendly silence” (they speak when necessary).  It is a life of solitude, although they do live together. There have been times when the Community has called individuals away from the Ritiro for a time. After 13 years in the Ritiro, Sister Carol was called out to serve as  novice director for her Community. She attended a nine month training for Novice Directors then set to work. She told me that all of the novices at the time were chronologically older than she was. One had been widowed and one had served in the U.S. Navy. She says that serving as novice director  was “difficult, but wonderful” as they learned how to discern God’s call in their lives together. In total, she spent 10 years away from the Ritiro, first serving as novice director and then working in pastoral care. She studied Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and worked at her Congregation’s hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, offering pastoral care to the sick and dying and to their loved ones.  Sometimes, in the midst of these family tragedies, she felt paralyzed with fear. She prayed and trusted God and found the right way to respond to people.

The Ritiro is “just little” she told me. Four women are a part of it and a guest room houses those Sisters who join them for temporary stays. She says, “It may sound weird, but it is simple. Like falling in love. Follow your heart and just listen”.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the life of Sister Carol. At the end of our interview, I asked her to share some advice for those who may not know how to pray or for those who find it hard to pray.  She sat back, as she did many times during the interview. closed her eyes, rested her palms on her legs and was quiet for a moment. Here’s her advice: “Prayer is as simple as breathing. Listen with your heart and hear God say ‘I love you'”.


+++++++Bonus Content+++++

Sister Carol shared  a copy of their Statutes for the Franciscan Ritiro. I will include some short excerpts from it here. There is also small webpage you may be interested in seeing:    Using italics to set them apart, I have added little reflection questions for you to consider as you think about how the Statutes of their Ritiro may have something to say to you as you shape your own life of contemplation and action.

You’ll find their contact info on the webpage listed above.


Under the section “Nature and Purpose”

[The Ritiro] is an integral part of the Congregation and gives specific witness to the primacy of prayer in the Franciscan way of life through the special means of silence, solitude, penance and simplicity of life.

Question written by this blogger  for you to consider: In what ways do you presently incorporate silence, solitude, penance and simplicity of life into your daily life?

Under the section “Governance”

Realizing that the Holy Spirit is operating in each member, community decisions will in some way incorporate the essential insights of all the members who are striving to reach a synthesis through sharing.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: Think of the family member or co-worker who has the smallest voice in your group’s decisions. How might you listen better as they voice their thoughts?

Under the section “Admittance and Readmittance”

 A temporary assignment, for example, a few months to a year, may be requested. After consultation with the Ritiro community and the sister’s Regional Minister, the General Minister acts upon the request with the consultative vote of the General Council.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider:  If you had the opportunity to be assigned to the Ritiro for a few months, what shape do you think your time there may take?

Under the section “Ritiro Lifestyle”

The particular lifestyle of the Ritiro serves the personal and communal life of prayer. The basis for this lifestyle is the traditional Franciscan Ritiro, which was a center of intense prayer life that overflowed into the active apostolate.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: Currently, what does your personal life of prayer look like? What about your communal life of prayer? What can you do this week to enhance both?

Under the section “Community Life”

 The Eucharistic Celebration is the source and summit of the whole Christian life. The sisters extend this praise throughout the day in coming together in common prayer. In this way, they pray to God in the name of the Church and the Congregation for the whole world.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: When will you pray for the whole world?



Thanks for reading this post. I’d love to read your feedback.



Better Late than Never: An Interview with a “Late Vocation” Franciscan Sister

Toss out the images you have of Catholic sisters. Especially if they were formed by cartoonish images or cheesy wall calendars full of black and white photos with speech bubbles inserted. You’ve got to meet Sister Anne Marie. She’ll be making her final profession of religious life on August 9th and has walked a unique road to get to this point.

She is in her 60s and has been in formation for seven years.

She told me she is surprised and delighted by the wide range of people who want to be there on August 9th. These include her former boss in Washington, DC, a retired military officer. She says she is humbled by the number of people who “want to see that happen”. Her mother is 99 and lives nearby. Hopefully, she’ll be having a good day and will be there to see it. I have a feeling she will. Guests will enjoy a reception afterwards, which may feature “Friar Cookies” an innovation whose popularity has helped the food pantry at Syracuse’s Assumption parish stabilize financially

She knew when she made her temporary vows for the first time, seven years ago, that she would be making final profession one day. When I asked her how people can know their gifts, she told me people should think about the times/ways they feel satisfaction in what they are doing and whether they feel a sense of appreciation from others—or not. It’s how one feels inside that really matters.

A highlight of the liturgy will be a dance given by a Hawaiian sister who is 82 years old. It will be given to the sound of John Michael Talbot’s “Prayer of St. Teresa”. The Litany of the Saints will be sung to the same tune as “When the Saints go Marching In”.

Sister Anne Marie, like me, is a proponent of second career religious vocations or ‘late vocations”.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a typical age for people to enter religious life (or marry for that matter) was right after high school. Of course, it is up to God’s timing to call whomever he wants, whenever he wants from wherever he wants. She knows her life experience helps her be a better listener as she talks to people from all walks of life. Her earlier jobs included serving as a graphic designer in the Pentagon. She designed the original logo for the DoD department called “Force Health, Protection and Readiness”. More recently, she designed the logo for the newly formed Conventual Franciscan province “Our Lady of the Angels”.

Catholic Sisters played a huge part in building the infrastructure of the United States. Hospitals and schools served immigrants and pioneers early on. It seems that for many religious communities, the time has come to pass responsibility for these great institutions on to others’ care. In many cases, this transfer yields a fund by which other ministries helping the poor are supported.

When I asked Sister Anne Marie what she might say to those who may be wondering what this is all about, who may have no context for what we are even talking about, she said,“You have to search inside yourself. You can’t fool yourself and you can’t run away from God”.

You have to search inside yourself. You can’t fool yourself and you can’t run away from God.

On Praying for Vocations

At church, it is common to pray for vocations. Normally, we pray that young men and women will hear and heed God’s call to religious life.I have a lot of thoughts on this particular prayer.

The Youth

The emphasis is often on the young. In the 1950s, high school boys and girls had marriage on their mind and similarly, many were ready to make a commitment to religious life at that time.  Currently, the average age for Americans to marry is in the upper 20s. It is more realistic, in our cultural milieu for people in their 20s to start really thinking about their lifelong commitments. I’ve met fine men and women in their 40s and 50s who were novices in their communities, fully embracing their call to religious life.

Emphasis on those who will be called

Let’s imagine a big party is going on and people are really enjoying themselves inside. On the outside are people who wonder how to get an invitation. They wish they knew about the party in advance and wish they had been invited. The whole party would have been better if they had shown up and everybody knows it. In this situation, whose “fault” is it that there are people who would like to be at the party but instead are hanging out wishing for an invitation? I believe that the onus is on those who are currently in the party to go out and invite folks in, giving them lavish detail bout what’s going on inside, offering a glimpse, a smile and a warm welcome. It is up to those who are throwing the party to invite others.

Read my ten ideas for vocation directors to hear more:


After the Gas and Dust Settle

Cone Nebula: Star-forming pillar of gas and dust

This is a photo of a “cone nebula: star-forming pillar of gas and dust” found on the official Hubble website.  As I sat and talked with a friend today, I was overcome with sadness as she told me a story of betrayal and hurt. As we spoke, I needed something to focus on so that I could remain “the strong one”. This something was a series of beautiful photos of space taken by the Hubble space telescope. The photos calmed me and I was able to be strong for her.  From where she is, it seems her world has been reduced to gas and dust. It will be up to her to rebuild it into something even more beautiful.

On the news this morning, I learned of a high school principal who killed himself today. He had organized a trip for his high school students on a ferry which capsized. As I write this, there may yet be survivors. He was overcome with guilt and despair over their deaths and took his own life.  I feel sorry for this guy who must have been tortured for those few hours between being rescued and taking his own life. I also feel sorry for the many who loved him who will now have to grieve him as well as their drowned friends. It must have seemed to him that his world had been reduced to gas and dust.

To relate these to the life of St. Francis (the focal point of this blog), I have to call to mind that Francis had his own moments of feeling his world had been reduced to ashes-to gas and dust.  He disowned his father in front of everybody in town, he spent three years rebuilding crumbling buildings, thinking that was his life’s calling, he lived a vacuous life of drinking and using people before his conversion, he had visions and heard God’ s voice and saw doors open and shut for him where he least expected them. I can’t say something cute like that we will all rise like the phoenix, but I can recommend a book I just read called The Other Side of Chaos by Margaret Silf. In it, she helps the reader remember that there is, on the other side of this gas and dust, something to look forward to. There is life after the chaos.  I never had an astronomy or cosmology class (although I did get my hair cut this week at a cosmetology school), but I like to look at the photos of stuff way out there in space. I guess this photo is what a star looks like before it becomes a star. I guess that, as Silf mentions in her book, even the very act of creation is described in our Christian sacred texts as order coming from chaos, gas and dust becoming elements and grains of sand and dinosaur cornea (I wonder if any of them were nearsighted as I am and what that meant for their survival rates).  I don’t have anything cutesy to say here, except to echo Margaret Slif and the image in this photo: after the gas and dust settle or dissipate, we can expect to find some order, although things will never look the way they once looked.

Real Life Humility

In Colorado Springs last week, I was surrounded by brilliant, kind Franciscan men and women from around the country. We were gathered for the very cool sounding “Franciscan Forum X” (as in “10”) at a retreat center. There, we heard from three brilliant thinkers who collaborated on a newly published book called Response to God’ s Love: Franciscan Moral Vision.  It was a rich conference and one which I will be pondering for a long time.  I’ll be putting together a new blog over at the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition website which features reflections on the 11 Characteristics of the Franciscan Moral Vision with contributions from some of the attendees.

Something which stood out to me above everything else that weekend is the deep abiding humility of so many Franciscan men and women I’ve met over the years. Let me give you some examples: I have known a Franciscan woman who went from Hospital CEO to studious graduate student in a matter of weeks, who studied hard, enjoyed time with fellow students and never had any sense of entitlement based on her past prestige. I’ve known Franciscans who went from University administration to serving at a homeless shelter, treating PhDs and homeless men with the same respect and dignity. I’ve known Franciscans who gave great homilies then quietly swept and cleaned the buildings after everyone went home. There’s something very inspiring about that groundedness. I hope I can live that as well-whether I am stapling and taping things for the DRE at my parish or standing before a crowd of  enthused  listeners who come to hear me give a talk, I want to do so with integrity and humility, the way I’ve seen vowed Franciscans do it again and again.

What about you? Can you think of someone who showed this kind of humility even when their life transitioned from one role to another, less exalted role?


When you feel alone.

Aren’t there profound moments in life when you feel alone?

I’m not referring to the good times-I’m referring to the tough times of being alone.

Sure, there are those great moments of solitude spent on a hike or on a trip nobody would take with you so you decided to take it anyway (and are glad you did), moments spent in the morning with coffee and a book of reflections-those moments of being alone are to be sought and cherished.

But, there are those other moments of feeling alone that are just painful. Maybe you are the new guy at work, or in your neighborhood or school. Maybe you’re home with a newborn, Law degree hanging on the wall and lots of unknown days ahead of you. Maybe you are negotiating your way into a new weekly routine in the wake of a loved one’s death or having lost your job. It is these moments of being painfully alone that I’m thinking about today.

I’m sharing this video with you not because it is my ole pal’s ordination or because I have any connection with this religious community (Holy Cross). I don’t have any personal connection to this video-well, actually, I do. I love the litany of the saints. I remember hearing it sung in this way in connection with someone’s solemn vow profession back in the early 00’s. I’d never heard it before. Dang. It is so beautiful. We’re asking men and women from across the span of history, cultures, languages, abilities and circumstances to pray for us. We’re asking them to “be there” for us when we need them most-when we are alone. I love references to the “cloud of witnesses” who are there for us. I just read a dumb book by a guy who apparently lost his faith.  I don’t even want to reference it here since I’m kind of embarrassed for having  trudged through it. Among other things that are now missing from his understanding of the world beyond his hipster glasses is the loss of appreciation for all those who have come before us. Those short Albanian nuns, short Umbrian poets, short popes and others who bushwhacked a path through this overgrown jungle of life, keeping their eye on their trail guide the whole time.   You’re not alone and you’re not the first person in the world to do this…whatever this is.

St. Francis of Assisi, in his Testament, says that nobody showed him what to do, only God himself and that he had only the Gospels to look to as a pattern for his life. Surely, the cloud of witnesses were praying for Francis as he bushwhacked his own way.

I’ve never been there, but I’m told the Cathedral in Los Angeles, California has an amazing tapestry depicting this cloud of witnesses. Check out more info on that here:

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What did Francis of Assisi look like, pray tell

Here’s my point: you may have a dozen excuses in your back pocket, ready to pull them out at any invitation or before accepting any compliment. You may like to say that you are not x enough or not y enough or you don’t have enough z in you to do something. I want to assure you that Francis said “yes” to God over and over again, despite having a patchy beard, small feet and non-milky eyes.  You can say “yes” too, no matter how big your head or feet are.

Here is a detailed description of St. Francis’ physical appearance, provided to us by Thomas of Celano, his first biographer. I’ve yet to find a painting which depicts this precisely and would love to see an artist take a crack at it.Image

Overall appearance: cheerful

Face: kind, not lazy, not arrogant

Height: Medium-Short

Head: Medium sized and round

Forehead: neither large nor rough

Eyes: not to big, not too small. not milky. black.

Eyebrows: straight

Hair: dark

Nose: neither uneven  nor wide

Ears: neither large nor sagging.

Temples: Smooth

Beard: Patchy

Teeth: White and even

Lips: neither fat nor large

Neck: slender

Fingers: long

Nails: tapered (was not a nail biter)

Legs: thin

Feets: small

Skin: fine

Fat? no

St. Francis, Biographied



1.  More biographies have been written about __________ than about any person in history.

a.) St. Francis of Assisi

Answer: a.)St. Francis of Assisi

How did you score? I hope you did well. It feels good to do well on quizzes in magazines and blogs. It is true that our humble, lowly, earthy hero, Francis, has been the focus of more biographies than any other person. Isn’t that just how things go? You spend your life seeking out humility and giving credit to God for all creatures great and small and then a few hundred years later,  someone invents the printing press and then a few years later, somebody starts the tsunami of books about you. I guess it is true that the last shall be first. I’ll try a little more humility in the next few days and see if I can at least get a shout-out on a facebook post. Live small, aim small, that is one way to approach life. 

We can guess (or, to use a popular word these days, deduce) that there are about as many versions of Saint Francesco d’Assisi  as there are authors writing about him. It is hard to get a good picture of the person when we only focus on what others have written about him.. I’m a big fan of his writings for this reason. If you really want to get to know St. Francis of Assisi, I’d suggest that you purchase yourself a copy of his book of writings by New City Press called Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (Volume 1). You can find it for about $20 online, cheaper at the end of semesters.






Clare loves Francis

tatSaint Clare of Assisi was not the lover of Saint Francis of Assisi.

People love to examine their relationship and plug in some fascinating tale of unrequited, suppressed or sublimated love. Naturally, the imagination of many scholars/fans/spiritual wirters wants to go into some excting places to spice up the story of these two folks. Heck, one’s a man and one’s a woman, so there had to be some romantic feeling there, right?

Wish I could remember all the details of that C.S. Lewis book about the four (or was it five?) loves, but I can’t do that right now, so I’ll just have to go with my own thoughts on this one.

Sure, Clare loved Francis. Sure, Francis loved Clare. Love was a defining feature of how each of them met the world. Not with suspicion and fear as most people meet others. If you haven’t experienced people meeting you with suspicion and fear lately, it is because you are not trying hard enough. What I mean is that you are in a routine and you aren’t encountering anybody new from day to day. My husband and I have just moved to a totally different part of the country and so every place I go, I am a stranger and pilgrim. You know how strangers and pilgrims are treated? That’s right-with suspicion. Want to hear more about that? Drop me a line as I am now an expert on the topic after a few weeks in a new place. As I estalbish a routine, though, I know this will go away and I won’t be viewed as suspiciously in as many places.

Enough about me, let’s return to our heroine. We can say she was his first female follower. It doesn’t stop there, of course, because she and Jesus blazed a beautiful path as she followed in the footprints of the poor and humble Christ. Another reason why it doesn’t stop there is b/c she outlived the fella by a good several decades. God continued to inspire, direct, lead and show her the way.

Through this blog, we’ll be taking a good look at this cool formerly rich lady who gave up her status, riches and security to live in the world as a pilgrim and stranger. For now, suffice to say she was not in some weird love triangle involving herself, Francis and Jesus. Nope. Her heart was totally for Jesus. And it was not a selfish, possiessive love of Jesus, but one which she wished others claimed and nourished as well.

Happy Valentine’s Day!