Articles By: Emily Clark

With Gratitude

“So, what have you been up to?” I asked my neighbor when we happened to meet at the mailbox one misty afternoon last week. The rain had been falling most of the day, and it was a welcome break to venture out, even just fifty feet from the front door. After sharing the usual quarantine talk about playing Bingo on Zoom and cleaning out the garage—again, she said, “Oh, and I started a gratitude journal.” Well, she had one up on me. “It’s just the little things,” she said, “but I can’t believe how much I’m finding to be grateful for.” I nodded, skeptical, as I wasn’t feeling all too grateful at the moment.

A typically positive and upbeat person, I had found myself struggling. While trying to keep students engaged during distance learning, I felt devastated for my seniors missing out on graduation. When talking to a friend, I heard the lamentation in her voice over the loss of contact with her disabled brother, who had become despondent in his group home without her weekly visits. Like so many others, my family had suffered illness, job loss, missed milestones, and lost opportunities due to the pandemic, though I knew there were others facing far worse than we were. The countless little things that comprised the mundane yet beautiful life we had just months ago seemed so far out of reach.

But what did my neighbor say? “It’s just the little things…” While I was acknowledging all that we were missing, she focused on all that we weren’t—all that we had before our lives shifted so abruptly but still continue to have, the ones that don’t change in the midst of our suffering but are actually enhanced because of it.

Still thinking about her journal, I remembered a line from a Jane Kenyon poem about enjoying life’s moments that I often share with students: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. . . . I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.” Though we don’t have a dog, the sight of our cat sleeping lazily by the front door in a sliver of sunshine makes me smile, as does my first sip of hot coffee each morning, the sounds of playful banter from my husband and daughters as they work on their “Star Wars” puzzle, the smell of lilacs blooming at last in the backyard. Such riches, such blessings.

I found myself thinking: When we look back on this season of challenges, what will we remember most? Though the difficulties we faced may linger, it is the gratitude that I hope endures. As our lives begin to recapture some normalcy, I want to embrace the way we notice what is often missed, the way we celebrate those “little things,” the way we pause to feel the goodness of God’s graces surrounding us, sometimes in the most unexpected moments, like the chance meeting of a next-door neighbor, who reminded me that even a quick trip to the mailbox can shift our perspective—with gratitude.

“We Had God’s View”: Diocese Blessed in Flyover Mission

TRUMBULL—Clear skies and light winds made Tuesday the perfect day for an inspiring mission of hope and healing—abroad a Cessna 172. Accompanied by the Blessed Sacrament encased in a monstrance and a statue of the Blessed Mother, Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, and associate pastor Father Flavian Bejan bestowed prayers of protection as the plane flew above the Diocese of Bridgeport, a spectacular flight meant to calm the faithful amid growing anxiety over the coronavirus.

Departing mid-morning from Sikorsky Memorial Airport, the four-seater traveled the border of Fairfield County, north through Newtown and Danbury, down to Stamford and the shoreline, and over Trumbull, before returning to Stratford. This whole experience, Father Gannon said, was a call for God’s grace to enter our souls.

“We offered blessings on all people of the diocese,” he said. “It wasn’t just a bird’s-eye view. We had God’s view.”

This mission, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Council 8013, was the third of its kind for pilot John DeCastra, son-in-law of Tom Monks, a member of the St. Theresa Knights. A lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, DeCastra earlier this month initiated similar flyovers in the dioceses of Camden, NJ and Harrisburg, Penn., taking time out from his position at a base in Atlantic City to inspire others.

“He uses his talents for God,” Monks said of his son-in-law. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something you never forget.”

Prior to take-off, Father Gannon led a brief ceremony in the airport’s hanger, praying for a safe flight as those present knelt before the Eucharist. Dressed in the traditional black cassock and white surplice, he also wore a yellow gold cope, a cape-like vestment for special liturgies outside of Mass, and a biretta, a three-sided black cap. “I wanted to wear the proper vestments (for the occasion),” Father Gannon said. “We can never pay God back for all He has given us, but we can give Him the best from us.”

A thousand feet over Fairfield County, the priests held close the monstrance and Blessed Mother statue, continuously reciting prayers for people afflicted with COVID-19 as well as blessings on those striving to find a cure, healthcare workers, and anyone facing anxiety.

“God has an avenue to reach us,” said Dominick Angiolillo, Deputy Grand Knight from St. Theresa who was present when the Cessna took flight. “I believe this ‘flyover blessing’ is comforting. This is a message of hope and peace.”

Adding to their intentions for the protection and good health of God’s people, Father Gannon encouraged everyone to turn to Him in these uncertain times.

“When we feel fear and suffering, we remember how the Lord suffered in the flesh,” he said. “He walked as we do. We trust in Him—the source of all love and purpose—and feel His presence now.”

By Emily Clark

Waiting Patiently

Oftentimes, the spark of hope we need, the boost of positivity we crave is found at the most unexpected moments in the most random of places. And in these times we now face which test our patience and resolve, we will take whatever inspiration we can find. For me, it was in the parking lot of a small office building.
While helping my husband cart files and boxes out of his work place last Friday as he prepared to join the rest of the family in working from home, I was thinking how our society’s sense of normalcy had deteriorated day by day throughout the week. So much of what we knew and took for granted had ceased, albeit temporarily. Trying to process it all, we walked to the car, arms loaded with supplies until he stopped in the middle of the parking lot and glanced at two towering pine trees in the grove beyond his office. “Look,” he said to me, gesturing upward. “There, in the second tree. Do you see it?”
Squinting my eyes against the late afternoon sun, I wondered what “it” was until I saw a slight movement within the branches. A bald eagle. Large, commanding, regal. Right, I remembered. He had been telling me about this. That slight movement suddenly became more pronounced, and from there, the bird flew from the pines, wingspan out-stretched, across the cerulean sky. “That’s the female,” my husband explained. “We see her every day coming and going. She’s been nesting up there for weeks. Such patience…”
In awe, I stood there, watching her go. Such patience, indeed, and such beauty, and so obviously unaware of the surreal challenges that the world below her was confronting. Life continued as usual, if not for us then at least for her.
As we loaded boxes into the car, I couldn’t keep from glancing upward. These times have stressed us all, but the cycle of nature endured, essentially unaffected by our troubles. That eagle continued to build and prepare for what would come next: the completion of her nest, the hatching of her offspring. She was doing what she was meant do in this time, persevering in her world as we were doing in ours, as challenging as it may be.
Still awaiting the bird’s return, since my husband said she never left the nest for long, I remembered a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And so now, we decide to hope, to persist, to marvel at those unexpected moments that bring us the inspiration we need just when we need it.
The eagle did return, a twig in her beak, soaring across Southport Harbor with her unabashed majesty and grace and settling back in her nest to wait patiently. For she knew, just as we do, of the hope and expectation yet to come.

“It Was the Season of Light…”

“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” wrote Charles Dickens in his memorable opening to A Tale of Two Cities. Though meant to illustrate the dichotomy of life in the 18th century, this line has always instead reminded me of Advent. The English teacher in me loves reading this novel with my students in December as the truest and most spiritual “season of light” is upon us. Still, we cannot escape the contrast of darkness as the winter days become shorter, colder, and gloomier with those opportunities for physical light dimming even as the light of Christ’s birth grows within us.

Leaving the house each day at 6:35 am, I see little brightness other than the street lights emanating a florescent glow and the harsh beams of cars flying past me. But as I travel up the Merritt Parkway to greet those students who I hope will be as enamored of Dickens as I am, one light illuminates the darkness of each December morning in a way the others cannot. Rounding a curve near the exit to Route 8, I glance to the left and see, perched atop a rocky hill, a miniature Christmas tree, settled among a small grove of pines—a solitary glimmer, an encouraging beacon. I can’t help but smile as it awakens me.

In these darkest mornings, I watch for it as I approach that curve, ready to glimpse it and annoyed at myself on the days that I don’t—like today. Preoccupied by nagging thoughts of my mental to-do list, I missed it. Throughout my ride, I felt the absence of that momentary sight and pondered why it bothered me so. It will be there tomorrow, I reasoned, or will it? How often do we miss a chance to bear witness to those small instances that may bring us great joy? And how often do we take them for granted? Too often.

That tiny tree offers a sense of comfort that little else can at 6:35 am—not the heated seats in my Honda, not the thermos of coffee, or the carols on the Bluetooth. Maybe it’s because it was placed there by an anonymous individual, one looking not for recognition but to simply provide that glimmer, that beacon of the light that we all need to see.

Like the flickering flames of the Advent wreath and the twinkling candles in neighbors’ windows, this little glowing pine tree comes humbly in its unpretentious, unassuming form.  Despite the surrounding darkness, be it the approaching winter solstice, personal struggle, or collective strife, one single brilliance has the power to enlighten us, for as John 1:5 writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

As we wait for the truest light that is the joy of Christ’s birth, I take personal comfort and joy each morning in the welcoming glow of that miniature tree, remembering that throughout the “season of darkness,” I’ll continue to keep watch as I round the curve toward the “season of light.”

Come, Follow Me

He was eighteen. He was just eighteen. He was outgoing and generous, an athlete, a scholar and a volunteer. He could have been my child, my student, my neighbor. He was someone’s child, student, neighbor. And he was my daughter’s friend.

When the news flew over social media of the senseless accident that had killed Chris, the anguish I saw in my daughter’s face was profound. “How could he be gone?” she said in disbelief, remembering shared smoothies with their friends, endless card games and hours of volunteering. “He was just here.”

There were no answers I could give for this shocking loss, no comfort other than endless consoling and a presence to listen. At the memorial, some comfort, she said, came from seeing a photo of Chris with a cross around his neck, convincing herself that he must be in Heaven, though the image of a strong, healthy eighteen-year-old in Heaven was almost impossible to comprehend. Even the hope that he was at peace could not ease all the grief. Never before had she faced such a tragedy. At four, she barely remembered her grandfather’s funeral, and when her great aunt passed away last year, her death at eighty-eight seemed somehow easier to accept. But eighteen? He was not ready, everyone said. Or was he?

She was ninety-one. She was a steadfast ninety-one. She savored a good lobster roll and treasured her sunflowers. She was a loving wife, patient grandma, dedicated choir member – and my good friend’s mother. When her body and mind waned irreparably, she surrendered them in her usual quiet manner. The family undeniably grieved, but she was ready, my friend said, having had her fill of all life could offer: the joys of marriage and children, the fulfillment of gratifying work, the abundance of pleasures and sorrows that naturally encompass close to a century of living. The news that Theresa had died came just hours after the news about Chris, but our reactions were as different as the people themselves – and their deaths.

Two lives, well-lived and well-loved. While we accepted one passing with understanding, we struggled to process the other. With Theresa’s came a sense of peace; with Chris’ a sense of devastation. As I sat at Theresa’s funeral, her pastor consoled the family by recounting her great strength throughout the many challenges of her life, reminding them how that strength came from her love of God who now welcomed her home.

And, I realized, Chris had been welcomed home too, though it appeared to us all that he was not “ready” in the sense that Theresa supposedly was. How are we ready? I wondered. When are we ready? Will we be ready when God chooses to welcome each of us home too? Though a teenager tragically taken as his life is just beginning lives a far shorter time than an elderly grandmother submitting to dementia, is one any less ready than the other? And how can anyone make that determination when it’s God’s choice to call us when He alone decides? As Catholics, while we enjoy our own smoothies and card games, lobster rolls and sunflowers, we keep God at the forefront of it all, guiding us to our own readiness and helping us to become worthy of His call, whenever it may come.

As the choir eased the congregation from Theresa’s funeral with the lyrics “Be not afraid, I go before you always, Come, follow me…,” I was reminded of the similar message from Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In that moment, I sensed that both Chris and Theresa had found their rest. Eighteen. Ninety-one. Two lives, well-lived and well-loved who both heard a call from God to come, follow Him.


Can I Twirl?

When the thermometer inched past 60 degrees last week, everyone seemed to catch a bout of spring fever. Though the warmth was fleeting, it held a promise of renewal we hadn’t felt in months, sending everyone into a frenzied mode of cleaning. My daughters brushed cobwebs off their bikes and took to the road, my husband found a rake to tackle our dormant lawn, the neighbors swept leaves out of their fire pit, and I … well, I retreated indoors to an area most in need of attention: my 14-year-old’s bedroom closet.

I was ready to purge—with her permission—the piles of too-small T-shirts and shoes that were trendy no more, along with forgotten stuffed animals, ripped drawstring bags, a pair of crushed Mickey Mouse ears, and several granola bar wrappers. As I sorted and folded, stacked and arranged, the opened windows welcomed in mild breezes, seeming to refresh and purify all that surrounded me, confirming an instinctive need for renewal. This to Goodwill, that to recycling. I was on a roll. The piles of donations grew while the piles of clutter shrank …until the last hanger made me pause.

Pushed to back of the closet, encased in a plastic dry-cleaning bag hung my daughter’s First Communion dress, still as white as the day she wore it. Oh, should that go too? I wondered, weighing my sentimental attachment with my practical need to pare down possessions. A consignment shop would love this. Fingering the tiny pearls and embroidered florals stitched near the hem, I pictured her, not only on the steps of the altar or near the cherry trees with her friends, but in front of a mirror at JCPenney, taking a short gasp at her reflection and whispering, “Can I twirl?” And twirl she did, with all the innocence of a seven-year-old, poised to continue on her faithful journey, one which she had reaffirmed just weeks ago in another white dress at her Confirmation.

What needs to go as we shed the inessential weight of our lives and aim to declutter? And what must stay because it’s an undeniable part of our past? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit,” Psalm 51 advises, but at that moment, my spirit was not as steadfast as I wished it could be. The symbolism of spring and renewal was not lost on me as I held this dress in my hands, contemplating its future. While breezes gently stirred my heap of castoffs, I felt the importance of the past and the knowledge that we don’t need to let go of everything all at once to start fresh—just that burdensome excess like the piles of leaves in the yard or the old pair of Converse in its box. This cleansing of our lives is cyclical and ongoing, whether from the depths of a teenager’s closet or in the refreshing of our souls.

I placed the dress back on the hanger, behind the now orderly rack of shoes. Shedding cobwebs, tossing wrappers, and raking leaves I could handle. But that symbolic purity of youth needed to remain—at least until the next 65-degree day.