Merry Christmas everyone! My entire family & I wish you & your family a Blessed Holiday Season & Happy New Year! So many positive events have happened to us this year…

Yesterday, a dear friend of my sister’s sent us the US Flag from his last combat mission in Iraq. We should all remember our brave service people & their sacrifices this Holiday Season. We are a blessed people.

This year, my sister Kirsten & her husband Chris converted my garage into an art studio. Thank you!!! :o) My parents & I took our first airplane ride across the country with Sophia (my helper dog) who sat underneath the seat in front of us quietly. She did terrific! Back on the ground, Sophia stood next to me while we keynoted a slide & music presentation about our journey with multiple sclerosis (MS), the artist Vincent Van Gogh & Awakening the Artist Within at the Rocky Mountain MS Center’s Annual Convention held in Denver, Colorado. This year Sophia assisted me at elementary schools demonstrating to the children & adults how a helper dog can assist a person with MS. She appeared with me in newspapers, on television & in “Lehigh Valley Magazine” bringing support to programs & technology that benefit people with MS & their families, like the MS Wellness Program at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital & the iBot 4000 Mobility System. (see enclosed)

Sophia’s favorite story, however, did not appear in any newspaper, TV report or magazine this year, but begins with the two of us down at the park on a gorgeous summer day. I had just fallen off my scooter playing “tug of war” with her. Clearly the loser, I lay in the dirt, muscles in spasm, unable to get back on my scooter, just casting her angry glances. Thankfully, two college girls ran up to us & then two men who were able to lift me back onto my scooter seat. One of the men asked me about my German ShepherdShe’s beautiful!” I told him “Her name is Sophia & she’s trained to make my life easier!” He laughed “Sophia, that’s Greek for wisdom... I teach at Saint Sophia in New Jersey. Wow, Sophia can really catch those sticks in the air! What a well trained companion you have.” I halfheartedly agreed still irritated with her “Yeah, I trained her & she’s training me I suppose. We used some books by the Monks of New Skete… They raise German Shepherds in New York State someplace. Always wanted to visit them...” The man laughed, “Oh, I know those guys.” “You know the monks?!” “I sure do, in fact tomorrow my name will change from Jay Rochelle to Fr. Deacon Gabriel. I’m Eastern Orthodox, like the monks. You said you’d like to visit them?” Many weeks later, Sophia & I are on our way up to visit the monks with my cousin Gretchen – winner of last year’s Sophia Award!!!

For those who do not know, each year Sophia confers a special award on one person who has in some way supported the National MS Society in the ongoing fight against MS. We know many people each year who help the Society push towards the cure! But, Sophia chooses just one person each year who has inspired her in a special way… Don’t ask me how I understand who she chooses! I just understand. Last year’s Award went to Gretchen who with the help of many people has, once again, pedaled 150 miles across Texas & Oklahoma with her teammates raising funds & support for the National MS Society in this year’s MS 150. My special thanks to Gretchen!! To her team!! & to everyone who helped support them on their ride this year - & also last year!! Gretchen is obviously a competitor & traveler with a big caring heart for her family! She arrived at our home in Allentown, PA from Dallas, Texas eager to begin our shared spiritual, dog training experience with the monks! What must have been divinely inspired, Gretchen arrived at our house - unknowingly - on the Feast Day of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel & Rafael – who are 3 of the 7 archangels in the Hebrew tradition. I smiled when she arrived for dinner that evening & mentioned our sponsor’s name to her again, Fr. Deacon Gabriel. “The angels must be with you, Gretchen!” :o) The Roman Church celebrates the Feast of the Archangels on September 29th. I am Roman Catholic not Eastern Orthodox like the monks, but no matter, we are all God’s children. Michael (means “Who is like God?”) is the archangel who cast Lucifer & the wicked angels out of Heaven & into the underworld. He is the protector of all humanity! Gabriel (“Strength of God”) announced to Zachariah the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist, & to Mary, the birth of Jesus. His greeting to the Virgin, "Hail, full of grace," is one of the most familiar & frequent prayers of Christian people. Raphael (“Medicine of God” or “God has healed”) is the archangel who guided Tobias on his journey in the Old Testament story. Raphael’s mission as healer & fellow traveler often causes him to be invoked before journeys. Visiting New Skete would be just such a journey. So, I printed out a copy of the Book of Tobit & read a few parts to my traveling companions as we drove to visit the monks & their German Shepherds. The Book of Tobit chronicles the story of Archangel Rafael, the young Tobias & his funny little dog who follows through the adventure. Gretchen’s Pit- Bull “Suki” would not be tagging along with us this time, but Sophia was ready for the adventure! Curiously, Tobias’s faithful dog is the only one mentioned in the Bible!  Sophia is a real expert on this particular dog character in the Bible, but spent most of our travel time snoring on the backseat while I read to Gretchen.  Truth is I have a special fondness for storytelling & for the Archangel Rafael, whereas Sophia just enjoys sleeping more. While my folks & I were visiting Medugorje in 2003, I briefly spoke with a very mysterious young woman named Rafael (a masculine name?). Upon returning I would discover that Rafael means “God has Healed” or “God’s Medicine” in Hebrew.

So, I like to believe that a guardian spirit is still hard at work in my life – in some way! 

Angels ( n j l s) n.

1.        Guardian spirits or guiding influences.

2.        Kind, lovable people.

3.        Informal, Financial backers of an enterprise.

Gretchen & I spent most of our drive talking about angels, dogs & joking around about some of the more colorful moments in the story when Gretch’ suggested that we take a vanilla shake break at the next Mc Donald’s. Sounded good to me & to Soph’ (who was still snoring on the backseat). Oddly though, try as we may… after exiting the highway & driving a few more miles down the road, we could not find that darn Mc Donald's anywhere! Frustrated, we settle on a bathroom break at a Shell Gas Station. Sophia immediately wakes-up as Gretchen drives our van into the lot! Gasoline prices are high. $3.07 for one gallon of premium, but Gretchen filled the tank anyway. I used the bathroom first. As I am inside finishing up, washing my hands, I hear Gretchen shout through the door “Brett, our gas attendant is named Rafael!!! &, he's Russian, like the monks... Are they Russian ???” :o) Gretchen snaps this picture of Rafael (above) & telephones her mom. “Gretch’ your mom & dad are going to think we’ve gone crazy, & that I’m to blame!”  In the book of Tobit the Archangel Rafael is disguised in human form as the traveling companion of Tobias.

Well, after meeting the Archangel, we drove to Gretchen’s sister Amy in Connecticut. She introduces me to her funny little dog, also named Sophia!!! Amy joins us on the way to New Skete & we all attend a late service at what we would soon discover is named “Hagia Sophia Church” (see front) Together, we enjoy a weekend of camaraderie with the monks, sisters & married couples, wonderful food (especially the nuns gourmet cheesecakes), two litters of German Shepherd puppies, Sister Cecilia’s iconography, beautiful prayer services & some much needed rest on my part.  Sophia’s Award goes not only to the riders, but to the people who inspire & support them. Sophia’s choice for this Year’s Award – Amy Reid! :o) She has been an inspiration to everyone on this very special  journey in Fall 2005. I have been blessed with several angels!!!  

We wish everyone a beautiful Holiday Season & Happy New Year! - Brett & Family