My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Letting the Chips Fall

Against my garage wall, is a little contained garden, set like a semicircle against the siding. How it got there is amusing. A decade or so back, we needed a tree taken down in our back yard, and we asked the yard men to go ahead and leave the chips for us in the driveway. We liked the idea of free wood chips for our landscaping.

I will never forget watching the truck as it started to release its wood chip load. The three kids and I stood to watch, noses to the window in anticipation, as the chips started to form a mound, a hill, and then...our jaws dropped as the truck dumped its entire load of wood chips into a sizable mountain that measured a good twelve feet in diameter and at least five feet tall!

The driver waved cheerily and went on his way, leaving us to run outside and examine this new geographical feature. It didn’t take long for the kids to discover that a plastic winter toboggan slides well down a wood chip mountain. 

My husband took one look when he got home from work, and laughed at the ridiculous sight of enough wood chips to open a garden center. All summer we shoveled. Every tree on the property, flower bed, hidden nook and cranny -- all received a nice, thick decorative blanket of wood chips. We offered wood chips to neighbors. But still, that pile grew smaller only infinitesimally.
Every imaginable spot in our yard received
a blanket of wood chips!

One day, we drove into the yard to see smoke emanating from the middle of the pile! It was in the process of internally combusting under that summer sun. We grabbed the rakes, spread the chips some more, and sprayed them down with water, so that no real fire could incubate.

We reached the end of ideas, as to what to do with all that mulch. When the pile had finally shrunk to a somewhat manageable size, we shoved it against the exterior wall of the garage into a shallow flower bed, contained by bricks. I found a damaged statue of St. Francis that needed rescuing at Hobby Lobby. Three feet tall, the resin statue had a hole in the top of his head and another in his knee. But arranged strategically, St. Francis filled the space beautifully. 

Hostas took up residence and flaming orange day lilies. A garden trellace backed St. Francis, and then a decorative black iron grillwork of grapes and leaves. A sundial came to perch on the bricks, a good reminder of time’s passing and of keeping perspective and priorities in order.

Later, a local lady needed a new home for her lovely concrete grotto of Mary. It was so heavy, it took four of us to put the shrine in our car. Back home, we placed it next to the St. Francis garden. Her corner was unattractive, so this summer, I got to work. Sept the area clean and positioned a nice garden stepping stone in front, creating a lovely surface for candles. 

I replanted some of flourishing, fragrant mint into pots to flank the shrine, and found a waist-high trellace of cast iron, drastically reduced at a neighborhood store. A bell hangs from the trellace. It makes a nice, mellow clang, like a call to prayer. The top of the trellace is shaped like a crown. I placed the trellace in just such a way, that this little outdoor area for Our Lady is now an enclosed little nook that looks like it was designed carefully. I placed a chair there, and have started praying Rosaries in that peaceful spot.

I just sat out there a moment ago, and this thought came to me: this corner of the garage, was once one of the least attractive and  most abandoned spots in the yard. But now I love it. It all started with that surprising wood chip pile. Whoever had the idea of creating a planting bed from those remaining chips, set up a situation that evolved into a lovely prayer spot years down the road. Every day this summer, I’ve been raking that spot, tending it, placing plants and candles there. And now the spot is loving me back! It beckons to me daily.

This sort of intentional care, nurtures friendships and family ties, too, as well as our intimacy with God. If we long for eternity and love Our Creator intentionally, each day, through prayer, Mass, and seeking God’s Will in everything, than our relationship to Him will begin to bloom in all sorts of creative, surprising and wonderful ways.

When I visited remote missionaries across our nation for Catholic home mission EXTENSION Magazine, I saw priests, religious and lay people acting just like earnest gardeners, in tending their mission outposts, and their personal friendship with God and their people. In impoverished spots, I saw literal gardens, that, in their blooming, seemed emblematic of all the great things happening in the spiritual and material realm through God's promptings. I saw grottoes tended and humble, yet lovely churches. I also saw practical outreaches blooming, in the form of clean and efficient soup kitchens and resale shops, so the poor could buy what they needed.

We have our own missionary outreach in our daily lives, right within the four walls of our home, and outside, too, in our neighborhoods. And if things get tough, we can be inspired by our missionaries and their people. They encounter some of the toughest situations amidst poor and often desolate locations. They go toward areas others flee, and then mindfully and prayerfully allow God to work, causing wonderful things to manifest  -- and souls and personalities -- to bloom. May we, too, be open to the ideas and promptings given to us through the Holy Spirit, so we can be agents of beauty and change in our suffering world. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Live Hopefully in 2016

My intrepid 82-year-old Mom,
Virginia Robin, on a recent
pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Why not write about hope? Mom suggested, when I mentioned my Worldview Wednesday deadline for A couple days passed, then she asked again, “What will you write about?”
These are tough times, she said. “Tell people they have to keep hope. We owe it to the younger generations.” Our children need that example, to live hopeful lives themselves.
“Send me your reflections, Mom,” I invited. “Here’s your homework: set the timer for 15 minutes and write about the theme of hope.”
Within hours, a bundle of memories awaited me in an email from my 82-year-old mother. A hopeful post seems a lovely way to start 2016, so here we go, courtesy of my mother, Virginia Robin.
“Hope was instilled in me at a very young age,” she reflected. “When I was 8 years old, my brothers went to help win World War II. They were gone for about four years and we missed them very much. I always felt that they would return and they did for furloughs at times, but it was four years before the war was over in 1945.
“All that time, my parents never expressed fear to me or my 6-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother. We knew that the war was going to end and that the United States would win. Life, as we young ones knew it, was routine and we helped with the war effort as much as we could. We helped with the vegetable garden and with the chickens that we were raising so we could have meat, as all meat at the butcher was rationed.
“We saved all cans, took the labels off and flattened them for the scrap as every can saved made a bullet. (So they told us back then). My brother soaked strips of paper and fashioned them into softball-size balls to dry behind our furnace. These were used as fuel to save on coal.
“We did without the ordinary things that we take for granted now but were hard to come by at that time, such as chocolate, butter, soap, toys made of rubber, and for the adult women nylon stockings were scarce.
“We survived. My brothers came home and went on to raise families. Through it all we remained hopeful.”
How did people keep hope alive? They did “what they could and observed a routine in their lives as much as possible,” Mom wrote. “I feel that it is the obligation of every adult to pass hope down to the next generation. In order for us to do that in a compelling manner, we need to keep hope alive in our hearts.”
I would say Mom is an expert on this theme, having survived tumultuous times through more than eight decades! She told of how many of her young friends went to fight in the Korean War in the 1950s, and how “our hope for the future was tested during the missile crisis when I was a young mother in the 60’s.
“There was a lot of fear going around at that time as we were engaged in a cold war with Russia. People in our area had built bomb shelters and we had stashed extra bottled water and canned goods, first aid items, etc., in case we had to take shelter in our crawl space. My husband (Joe) and I knew that was not going to be total protection against an atomic bomb dropped in Chicago, but we had to do something.
“The night that Russia placed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off our coast, and were testing the nerve of our young president, John F. Kennedy, we were frightened. It happened on our regular square dancing night. The children were very young and we decided to carry on as usual and go dancing. Everyone came and we had a great time. We did not stay home and scare our children with how hopeless it could all be. Things turned out all right as Khrushchev decided to remove the missiles.
“Now we are dealing with more threats and passing hope to our children is even more of a challenge,” wrote Mom, a 5’2” Irish-German powerhouse from Chicago’s South Side. She married Joseph Robin, an eternally optimistic man of French Canadian heritage from the tough Chicago Stock Yards neighborhood, who had studied his way to become a mechanical engineer. He always spoke of the grammar school nun that challenged him to excellence, and the full tuition-paid scholarship he was awarded to Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School. He always knew from a young age that he wanted to be a good Catholic family man, and lead his children to heaven. And no matter what, they always clung to this reality, wrote Mom: “Faith was key.”
Mom was aged 24 and a registered nurse when she married Joe, a widow with four young children. She carried on to have three more (I’m the youngest), in the face of all threats and difficulties of the times, while pursuing and obtaining an advanced degree in Piano Performance. Even after stepping my father through many years of cancer treatments and medical crises, and losing him to cancer a year and a half ago, Mom still teaches piano. She just accomplished a first-ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This is not a woman who lets tough times defeat her.
“We believed God would help us through any situation,” concluded Mom, giving credit to her own parents. “My Mom and Dad lived their faith and were great role models. Now that I am alone, I don’t know how I would manage without my faith. I believe that I am being guided in this phase of my life by God.”
What a hopeful story! Mom faced great adversity in life, and many naysayers, but held strong. She has grieved and struggled, and raising seven kids through the tumultuous 1960s and beyond has been no cake walk, but she continues to triumph.
I have a lifetime of memories of attending Sunday Mass with Mom and Dad, and of observing holy days with great family traditions. How I loved our Advent wreath and carol singing, little homegrown drama productions and Midnight Mass, and writing resolutions and seeing the New Year in, as a family. So as we head into 2016, let’s give a little round of applause to and lift up a prayer for our elders, who have kept faith and model to us the virtue of hope. Hope really does spring eternal. And judging by one of the best photos ever from several weeks ago, of my mother riding a camel on her first-ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land, hope seems to renew youth and vitality by the day!
Thanks, Mom…and may God bless us all with courageous hope into the New Year.
Copyright 2016 Marianna BartholomewPhoto courtesy of Virginia Robin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Post also appeared at and can be heard in the author's Missionary Moments podcast at the SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins show "R-- for Rebirth."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Entering into Advent in Christ's Light

A friend wrote this morning from his little Catholic outpost along the Bay of Bengal in India: "We entered in to the Advent by making a small crib. Inside we kept the Holy Bible, and all the congregation lit a candle in front of the crib, and prayed for one intention. They need to hold on to that intention 'til 25th of December.”

Over the past year, when strikes and unrest were stirring his area due to the split of their state, Andhra Pradesh, Fr. Varghese gathered his people in a special adoration hour. They each lit a candle then, too, and prayed for peace.

The flames from such candles pierce the darkness in a powerful way. I live in a region nearly 75 % Catholic. It’s hard for me to imagine being part of a Christian minority like Fr. Varghese and his people, who live in territory less than 3% Christian. They don’t take their faith for granted. 

Every night In the month of October, "Mary's month," Fr. Varghese and his people marched through Kakinada, India streets with Rosaries in their hands. Their destination? A different parishioner’s home each evening. They held Rosaries sent to them by some of my St. Isaac Jogues Rosary Maker friends. Three homeschool families and two 3rd order Carmelites also helped Fr. Varghese and his people buy a lovely statue of the Blessed Mother and build a wood palanquin -- a hand–held litter that traditionally transports royalty in India.

By bearing the Blessed Mother along as royalty, explains Fr. Varghese, they were declaring to the world that she is their heavenly queen. One little Hindu boy heard about the beautiful Mary, and asked to meet her. He was paralyzed in bed, so Fr. Varghese and the marchers made a special stop at his house and prayed there. The boy was so touched, he started to move his hands and feet for the first time. He is now in physical therapy…a little miracle associated with the Blessed Mother.

Another man had been struggling to keep his business going, and was waiting for two years for certain needed paperwork to be approved by the government. He begged for a visit by the Mary marchers, who came and prayed at his place of business. The next morning, he received news that the needed regulations had been met and he could go ahead  with his business. 

Now, we obviously don’t worship a statue, but whenever a crowd of people target a certain intention and ask the Blessed Mother for her intercession, prayers are answered. She is like a burning candle to her people -- a beautiful bright flame that gives people hope in a sometimes turbulent land. In a nation where 60% of the people are malnourished and where their faith can be misunderstood, a heavenly mother’s comfort is especially powerful. No wonder why faithful in India, and even their non-Catholic neighbors, embrace her so dearly.

I’ve always loved the Blessed Mother, too, and would like to be like her all I can. I took Virginia as my Confirmation name: my mother’s name, but also in honor of the Blessed Virgin. More than a dozen years ago I made my St. Louis de Montfort Marian consecration for the first time, dedicating my life to Jesus through Mary, just like St. John Paul II did. When I first met Fr. Varghese, one of the things we had in common was our love of the Blessed Mother. He often refers to himself as Varghese-Maria, and first made his St. Louis de Montfort Consecration several years ago. He has brought more than 70 of his parishioners along on this journey. I would text him the Marian Consecration exercises in the morning,  he would translate them into the language of his people, Telegu, and present the exercises to them by night. I know my friends Deacon Tom and Dee of Catholic Vitamins have also made and renewed their Marian consecrations and find them an incredible uplift. So I see the Blessed Mother’s hand all over the outreach they do for the Church, and all over whatever I do and the outreach of Fr. Varghese.
Deacon Tom and Dee host the SQPN-Affiliated
Catholic Vitamins Show. I've podcasted
Missionary Moments for the show for
four years and love the inspiration I get
each week from the wonderful guests
this lovely couple feature.

Do you know that I wouldn’t even know this missionary priest from India if not for Catholic Vitamins? Fr. Varghese was searching a pro-life topic online when that search led him to the Catholic Vitamins site, and to my bio. I’ve spent nearly my whole adult life writing about and raising funds for Catholic missions across America, and Fr. Varghese contacted me from remote India, asking for any advice or help in serving the poor of his five scattered missions.

After I checked with his archbishop to verify Fr. Varghese’s identlty, we started texting each other. As a journalist and Catholic, I was fascinated to learn more about the Church in India, which has ancient roots extending back to when St. Thomas the Apostle himself, evangelized along the Malabar coast. I emailed helpful faith links to Fr. Varghese, and in time, my friends and I started sending a little help.

We’ve sent Rosaries, prayer cards and Bibles, and helped with emergency funds for rice, lentils and tin roofs after cyclones struck. We’ve helped feed and clothe poor orphans and now nine children have been saved by Fr. Varghese from child labor situations. We cover their tuitions 100% through a little word-of-mouth outreach called Holy Family Relief.

We received beautiful news on August 21, that Holy Family Relief was approved as a 501c3 tax-exempt public charity. If I thought that meant that it would now be easier to raise funds for Fr. Varghese and his fellow missionaries, I was wrong. Actually, my children are older now, and I don’t as often see the friends in the home school groups who provided such a great uplift to Father’s work. Deacon Tom and Dee at Catholic Vitamins have encouraged me in the past to talk about any pet projects. So I’ll say now that  my reflection for a 33-day consecration project just posted on Day 22, on the popular blog site Four other writings were included in an upcoming book of Scripture reflections edited by Sarah Reinhard and published through Notre Dame’s Ave Maria Press. And my reflections were also included in As Morning Breaks, a 2015 Gospel reflection ebook written by’s Lisa Hendey and a team of 30 writers, including a certain Deacon Tom and Dee. 

I’ve been contributing Worldview Wednesdays to monthly and am serving as a voiceover artist for the Catholic Television network, Shalom TV. And podcasting Missionary Moments for Catholic Vitamins for going on four years, continues to be a joy. I’m first wife and mother, and my greatest joy comes through these roles. But the writing, podcasting and now acting as president of our new 501 c3 for missionary priests in India, shines a great light in my life. 

So many thanks to Deacon Tom and Dee, as they near the airing of their 300th show for Catholic Vitamins. You've provided many of us wonderful encouragement along the way. And I will now shamelessly beg for prayers for myself and my family..but also for our Holy Family Relief. For several years, friends have helped Fr. Varghese and fellow missionaries erect nativity scenes for Christmas, do feedings for the poor, pass out saris to poor widows and blankets to the needy. Last year, we also gave hoodies to little orphans. So if anyone would like to help us celebrate our Catholic Vitamins connection with this budding work in India, and would like to help Fr. Varghese and a couple of his fellow missionary priests celebrate this Christmas, we could very much use the help. 

Please visit Dalitjournal.blogspotcom to find a donate button, or visit the new website that features photos and stories from Fr. Varghese's current location at You can also email me at to learn more. 
I was so impressed by the beautiful photos of Mary
Fr. Varghese has been sharing with me from his
missions, I started featuring them my hand-made
stationary. I offer it for donations for Fr. V's efforts.

Fr. Varghese has said we are like the oil in his lamp. When things run very dry, we’ve been able to bless him with a little fuel for his efforts. And this little flame in his mission oil lamp, is one  that I never want to go out. So as we celebrate our first Sunday of Advent, I take my courage in my hands and come to you with this prayer intention and need. My family and friends wouldn’t know Fr. Varghese if Catholic Vitamins hadn’t connected us from the beginning. We are so grateful. Thanks to Deacon Tom and Dee and their wonderful show, and to all who pray and uplift our missionaries world over. God bless each one of us and our little daily outreaches to our families and communities. May we all have a blessed Advent. 
We're hoping to again help Fr. Varghese and a couple of his
fellow missionaries give blankets and saris to the needy and
host a poor feeding for Christmas.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Let's Be Refreshing

Plunging my nice organic peppermint into boiling water for tea, the thought occurred to me: bruising and tearing the leaves released their full flavor.

I just brought a big glass container of iced peppermint tea to a priest friend’s 10th anniversary of ordination party, and I was surprised to see the little children working the spigot on the carafe, taking one serving, and then another.

“What is this?” they asked, and I was excited to see a natural, un-sugared drink being so appreciated. You may know this: mint flourishes. So if you have none in your garden, plant a little plot, but contain it...or at least expect it to assert itself all over your yard if you don't keep it under control.

The secret to enjoying the mint to its fullest, like I said, is in the bruising of the leaves.  Put a couple handfuls of torn fresh mint in a pot of boiling water. Let it sit and steep for a nice while. Let it take its time…then enjoy it hot or iced. Be careful if you have reflux. It's a muscle relaxant and if you take too much, you could aggravate your reflux issues. But taken in moderation, it’s great for weight loss, digestion and so refreshing.

It’s also a good reminder: If you’re having a tough moment, day…life…then take heart. Let’s try together. We’ll let that tempering of tough times take place and with God’s grace, those bruises of life, whether little or big, will release our full flavor...our rich nature. We’re made to be a refreshment to the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

As Morning Breaks: Daily Gospel Reflections

"With Christ joy is constantly born anew." Pope Francis

As a young mother of a baby girl, I was asked to write a Lenten Scripture reflection for our church's Living Stations of the Cross. I never forgot the honor of meditating on my bit of Scripture and contributing prayers to the event open to our whole parish. For Easter, the Director of Adult Religious Formation presented me with lovely lilies in thanks, and said she, a single woman, had learned from my mother's wisdom. What a blessing.

For three years, I've podcasted Missionary Moments for Deacon Tom and Dee's SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins Show. I was happy to join this great couple and the other correspondents of Catholic Vitamins, in contributing two Scripture reflections for a new daily Scripture meditation book for busy moms: As Morning Breaks: Daily Gospel Reflections. To offer such a meditation, meant settling in with Bible and journal, praying, and simply sharing the journey. 

Please, check out this new ebook. You or someone you know might be greatly blessed by the little nuggets of mother's wisdom offered each day. Here is best-selling Catholic author Lisa Hendey's description of the work she compiled for As Morning Breaks:

Inspired by our prayer community at, As Morning Breaks offers 365 daily reflections on the Liturgy of the Word and the Gospels. With each daily meditation, the reader is invited into a further examination of the Gospel passage. A "ponder" question is provided for contemplation, discussion or journaling. Each meditation ends with a brief prayer. These prayers are offered as a springboard for your own quiet meditative prayer. 

Penned by over thirty authors and written from a variety of vocational perspectives, As Morning Breaks invites you to make morning prayer a fruitful part of your day. In encouraging us to prayerfully engage with the Gospels, Pope Francis shared in Evangelii Gaudeum (The Joy of the Gospel), "With Christ joy is constantly born anew." We invite you to pray with us, a community of believers from around the world, and to more fully ponder the joy of the Gospel in your heart. With links to each day's Gospel passage and in accordance with the Liturgical Calendar of the Catholic Church, this book is designed to offer you a beautiful, prayerful and joyful start to your day.

Authors for As Morning Breaks: Abbey Dupuy, Allison DeWolf, Allison Gingras, Catherine Boucher, Christine Johnson, Colleen Spiro, Cynthia Costello, Deacon Tom & Dee Fox, Deanna Bartalini, Diane Schwind, Dr. Mary Amore, Elizabeth "Ebeth" Weidner, Ellen Toole, Fergal O'Neill, Grace Urbanski, Jay Cuasay, Jeannie Ewing, Jennifer Fitz, Jennifer Gladen, Julie Paavola, Justin Stroh, Kelly Guest, Kirk Whitney, Laura Phelps, Lisa M. Hendey, Lorrie L. Dyer, Marianna Bartholomew, Melanie Jean Juneau, Rebecca Willen, Sarah Damm, Sarah A. Reinhard, Sheri Wohlfert, Sonja Corbitt, Terry McDermott, Victoria Gisondi

For more great resources from these authors visit

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Steaming away winter blahs

I picked up this great Crate & Barrel steamer for $2 with the tag still on, unused, at a local resale shop. A little cleaning with white vinegar and a rinse, and it was good to go. It's been a long winter, and I'm trying to tweak my cooking a little bit each day, to combat the blahs. Also, I refuse to let this little steamer gather dust on the shelf with the pasta maker I picked up about two years ago from the same resale shop. So, I did a little investigating online for some how-tos, and in just a few minutes, had steamed up some leftover Basmati rice. 

I'm a big fan of anything that expands my mind into the cooking techniques of other cultures and reminds me that the world is a very big, varied and fascinating place. Also, it's a lot warmer in parts of Asia right now than in these blustery Chicago suburbs! I like thinking about those sunny climes.

Trying and succeeding with this contraption was fun. Just put water in the bottom of a pan, layer in your vegetables with the longest to cook in the stackable steamer's bottom level, put rice on a lettuce leaf or parchment paper to steam in the level above, cover it up, and...success! Oh, and the rice had a lovely scent and flavor of bamboo.