trust-God-vulnerability

Which path?

My bucket list included the Cotswolds, so when I was planning to visit friends in Ireland, I decided to tack on a few days to explore English villages with thatched-roof cottages and hillsides dotted with sheep.

trust-God-vulnerabilitytrust-God-vulnerabilityI had been hiking in the Lake District of England some years ago, so I had a basic understanding of how hilly the English countryside can be and how difficult it can be to follow hiking directions. On that trip, our “leader” was a friend who had hiked in the Lake District several times before and assured us his guidebook was reliable.

We got hopelessly lost the first day, and since it was November, the sun began to set in late afternoon (our “leader” had only hiked there in the summer and had not taken into account the shorter days of November). His confidence waned along with the daylight. Fortunately, we found our way back to our village, but we were a bit more skeptical the rest of the trip.

Over the next few days, I came to understand that the guidebook was written with locals in mind—people who had grown up hiking these hills and would know which stile was the one just past where MacDonald’s barn used to be. We were in the dark, and I quickly began to mock the guidebook. Turn left after the second black sheep, I would offer, because that was about as helpful as the directions in the book.

Walking in the Cotswolds seemed more reliable because there is actually a path called the Cotswold Way, a walk of about 100 miles from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south. I planned to hike only the first part of the Way and thought, “How difficult could it be to follow a path with a name?”trust-God-vulnerability

Silly me.

My B&B host gave me maps with the local hikes clearly indicated and instructed me to follow the signs for the public footpaths which would take me to the top of Dover’s Hill and the start of the Cotswold Way. There I would find signs decorated with acorns to indicate the Way.trust-God-vulnerabilityI crossed through the first two fields with no problem, but the third gateway was surrounded by sheep, and I was hesitant to scatter them—not out of fear, but out of politeness. Why should they have to move just for me?

So I turned right and followed the fence line up the hill. Eventually, I found the footpath again and managed to find the start of the Cotswold Way.trust-God-vulnerabilityThe walk from Chipping Campden to Broadway is 4.5 miles and I knew that walking across the fields would take longer than a straight 4.5 mile walk back home. But after more than an hour of walking and no sight of Broadway or the Broadway Tower (which I expected to be able to see from a distance), I was getting discouraged.

trust-God-vulnerability

Broadway Tower

Just then, I met a young man walking in the opposite direction and asked if I was on the path to Broadway.

“Yes,” he said. “You go on this path another quarter mile and then cross through two wheat fields.” He paused before adding, “Broadway will be on your right.”

At the end of the two wheat fields, there was still no sign of Broadway—only another field on my right.

Eventually, I found my way to Broadway and enjoyed an afternoon in the village.

I decided to take the bus home.

The next day, I planned to visit Hidcote Garden which was three miles in a different direction. Rather than risk getting lost on the footpath, I decided to take the bus to the town a mile from Hidcote and then just walk from there. Armed with my map and directions from my host, I felt confident—only to walk much more than one mile with Hidcote nowhere in sight.trust-God-vulnerability

Fortunately, lots of people walk the paths, and I am not averse to asking for directions. Sure enough, I was on the wrong path. Once pointed in the right direction, I found the garden with no problem.

By then, I had begun to reflect on the paths as a metaphor for my life.

At the end of that day in Broadway, I had allowed myself a little pity party. I am alone, I whined to myself. Oh, I have loving family and friends, but since Jim and Ted died, I am not loved in the way I once was. I am not important to anyone in the way I once was. Poor me.

Here I was in England, staying at a lovely B&B, visiting churches and museums built hundreds of years ago, wandering through exquisite gardens and enjoying fine meals—and I was feeling sorry for myself. That was not the path I wanted to follow.

Rather, I want to be on the path that continually calls to mind my blessings, the path that invites me to gratitude and generosity.

Perhaps, like Broadway that first day, the destination is not visible as quickly as I want, but my days in the Cotswolds remind me to relax and trust that God is guiding me, and if I can do that, I can appreciate wherever I am along the path and eventually get to where I am meant to be.

God-faith-fear

Meeting God in the storm

“…there were peals of thunder and lightning….When the Lord came down to the top of Mount Sinai, he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:16-20)

Imagine standing at the base of a mountain in a great storm—thunder and lightning, the mountain trembling violently—and God saying, “Come on up.”God-faith-fearI have been known to tremble violently in the face of bad storms—thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards can send me into hiding until they pass.

But what about the storms of life—disagreements, disappointments and facing the unexpected. Those events can cause the same reaction in me—violent trembling.

And there is God, inviting me to step into the storm, to intentionally climb into the midst of it, not to shy away, but to actually face it head on. And there God will be, waiting for me, in the midst of the storm.

I envy Moses’ trust and courage to walk up that mountain in the midst of a violent storm.

If I were Moses, I am sure I would have said something like, “God, really? You want me to climb a mountain that is trembling, and walk right into the middle of a thunderstorm?” My fear of lightning would have been the first hurdle—and I don’t know that I could overcome it, even to meet God face to face.

But God waits patiently for me to change the narrative, the script that runs in my mind telling me to be afraid.

Like a toddler taking her first solo steps, God is in front of me, hands outstretched, waiting to catch me if I start to fall, waiting for me to trust Him.God-faith-fearChanging the narrative takes practice. Like the toddler or an actor learning a new role, there are many missteps before the performance works. Trusting God is like that for me.

It seems that every situation calls for me to relearn how to trust God. Every storm takes me to some default position of cowering in fear, and I have to visualize God with outstretched arms, calling to me, Come on, Madeline, God encourages me. It is going to be ok. I would think God would get tired of it, but that has not happened.

Instead, with great patience, God keeps inviting me.

I have had several jobs that had ominous beginnings. In one of them, I went home sobbing every night for the first six months. What have I gotten myself into? I would cry out to God. Over time, though, things began to settle down and eventually I came to love that job. Leaving it was painful. Now, when I am facing storms in my current work, I recall the people and incidents from that other job. I remind myself that God is with me and storms do pass.

God invites me to look up, to the top of the mountain, and to take the steps I need to take to meet God in the midst of the storms of my life.

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.

Hold

Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.

 

trust-compassion-God

Living the questions

As I lay on the massage table, allowing someone to tend to me, to help me release the stress I carry in my body, I started to relax.

And then these questions popped into my mind: What would it look like if I really loved myself? If I was truly compassionate toward myself?

What would it look like if I was able to let go of the expectations I place on myself, if I was able to let go of fear? What would it look like if I could see myself as God sees me and love myself as God loves me?

What would be different?

I imagine there would be inner and outer changes. My teeth would unclench and my stomach would unknot, although neither of those would be observable.trust-compassion-GodOutwardly, my shoulders would relax. My massage therapist in Pennsylvania used to suggest I place bricks on my shoulders in an effort to keep them from hunching up around my ears. (I imagine that when I am a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, I will be one of those dancers the judges repeatedly tell to, “Relax your shoulders.” Yes, I have a rich interior life—please allow me my fantasy).

At the end of this session, the Reiki Master said she got a vibe that I feel a need to get my house in order—figuratively or literally, she could not tell.

Definitely literally I told her as I thought of all the unfinished projects in my house.

Although I have been here for four years, three rooms still have no curtains. Hanging curtains used to be the first thing I did in a new place. It made me feel settled and at home. So, why no curtains? I have the fabric to make them and the rods to hang them, but….trust-compassion-GodWould self-compassion enable me to settle into my home? Or would it at least allow me to let go of my feelings of guilt for not having curtains?

My house has an enclosed porch overlooking the back yard. I created two new flower beds last summer that are blooming beautifully this year. Lavender and Echinacea fill the air with sweet scents, and black-eyed Susan, hydrangea and a butterfly bush add depth to the color palate. I feel at home on the porch and in the garden.

Perhaps I will reach the day when I feel that at home inside my house. Perhaps I will reach the day when I am that comfortable in my own skin.

Every time I get a taste of letting go and leaning into God, letting gravity pull me into a relaxed state, I know that is where I want to live. It is a place of mutuality, where God and I share a deep secret—that God has always loved me just as I am and that I can let go of my expectations that I be anyone else or do anything else. I can just let go and be loved.trust-compassion-God

 

prayer-examen-garden

Do more of this

I recently attended a workshop at a local nursery called Hydrangeas 101, covering the basics of successfully growing Hydrangeas. I had questions about the one that came with my house, as this is my first experience with this particular flower.

When I moved here, I had Googled “pruning Hydrangeas” and learned that pruning was a no-no. Numerous websites advised planting them where they have enough room to grow to their full size. Mine has room; I was more interested in knowing if it needed to be pruned for its health.

At the end of the hour-long workshop, I had the answers to my questions, and I walked out of the nursery aware that I was feeling light and happy.

Gardening is one of my favorite things and learning about flowers is as much fun as the actual gardening. I joined the local garden club when I moved here four years ago, to learn what is indigenous and what grows best in this zone. Now, I watch Monarch butterflies on Echinacea and hummingbirds at the Rose of Sharon.prayer-examen-garden

But, back to the workshop and the lightness I felt when I left.

I am by nature a curious person. Not nosey (I barely know my neighbors or their habits), but inquisitive; I love to learn.

As I walked out of the nursery, the words that popped into my heard were, Do more of this. The feeling was similar to the one I have when I am leaving my Polish classes—happy, light and free.

Entering with the awareness that I am seeking knowledge and leaving having acquired something—a clearer understanding of what my Hydrangea needs in order to be happier, or perhaps one new Polish word—it does not have to be much to make me happy.

Do more of this. The words reminded me of a prayer practice developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola called The Examen.

St. Ignatius saw the benefit of periodically stopping during the day and looking at how the day was going. Was he drawing closer to God through his words and actions? Or was he moving away from God?

I have heard The Examen explained in a number of ways, but the main point is to look at how the day is unfolding, to look at patterns in our lives, and to do more of the things that draw us closer to God and less of those that take us away from God.prayer-examen-gardenI tend to think of gratitude as an indicator of how my day is going. If it am feeling grateful, things are generally good. If I am feeling resentful or jealous or put upon in some way, I know I need to change something because what I am doing is moving me away from God.

The Examen can be helpful in leading me away from toxic people and situations. It can help point out patterns that are harmful and also patterns that are grace-filled. The Examen redirects me toward God and freedom.

 

 

fear-vulnerability-risk

Do the opposite

I am afraid. I am not sure exactly what I fear, but I know I am afraid.

I know it by my hesitancy to get involved, to start projects, to commit. And once I do start something, to stick with it until it is finished. I fear messing up, disappointing, being inadequate, not up to the task.

Things I used to do with confidence now give me pause. Sewing, cooking, knitting—all things I once did with certainty and ease—now I hesitate or, even worse, I don’t even try. A pile of fabric sits untouched by the sewing machine; recipes untried and yarn unknitted.

Not my usual way of moving through life, but pretty much the way I have been for the past few years. And I don’t like it. I want to be myself, more daring, more willing to try new things and more willing to take risks. What happened to that person? Where has she gone?

I wish I knew, and I wish I knew how to bring her back.

Fear has been holding me back, and I am tired of it. I want to break free.

My spiritual director recently suggested I push back against myself.  “Do the opposite of what you are comfortable doing,” she said.fear-vulnerability-riskMaybe it is all the loss I’ve experienced these past few years, all the grief and sadness. Maybe my equilibrium is just off. Maybe…do the reasons really matter? I think not.

Rather, I think I need to stop thinking, stop trying to figure it out—and just act.fear-vulnerability-riskBefore my niece’s wedding last week I went for a manicure. “Choose your color,” the manicurist instructed me. Standing in front of rows of nail polish in every shade imaginable, I was paralyzed by too many choices. I picked up bottle after bottle of different shades of pink, but could not make a decision.  fear-vulnerability-riskMy niece’s favorite color is blue, and I suddenly found myself drawn to the blues. “I have never worn blue nail polish in my life,” I said to no one in particular. Another customer said, “It is only nail polish.” Right. Only nail polish. Why such angst over something so temporary?

I chose a lovely shade of periwinkle, and then decided to get shellac so it would last at least two weeks. Two weeks of blue nails! Be bold, I told myself.

Two weeks earlier, I got my hair cut very short. Jim used to call it my “chemo haircut;” I call it my “girl’s summer haircut.” I had not had the courage to wear my hair this short for a long time, but I work at a cancer support center where people have very short hair (or none at all), so it is not an uncommon hairstyle.

It took some courage to tell my stylist to cut it short, but I am happy with the result. Plus, I know it will grow back if I tire of it. Short hair and blue nails—it’s a start.fear-vulnerability-risk

 

expectations-family-letting go

Unmet expectations

So Abram said to Lot: Let there be no strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are kinsmen. (Genesis 13:8)

“You have a perfect family,” my friend Jim used to tell me. Of course, he knew the quirks and dysfunctions of my family, but it was his way of reminding me to intentionally look for the good—and to be grateful.expectations-family-letting goI was reminded of this the other day when I was praying for the people on my prayer list—a hand-written list I keep in my Liturgy of the Hours book. Some people on the list are very close to me—family and friends—and others are people I have been asked to pray for, people I often don’t even know, but who have undergone some great suffering—divorce, illness, job loss, etc.

Several of the families lost children to drug overdoses or suicides. Others have been shattered by misunderstandings, betrayal, or some other dysfunction. Illness, accidents, drugs, alcohol, mental illness—the list of things that can go wrong in a family is long.

Four years ago, I moved home to be near my family. It was a good move for me, and I am deeply grateful for the way my family (both immediate and extended) has welcomed me and created a space for me in their lives. I feel blessed by my relatives, but I know that not everyone has that same experience.

Sometimes families are like Abram and Lot who “could not dwell together.” (Genesis 13:6) Abram was wise to recognize the issues and address them, but I am not sure that happens very often. More often, I think people hold onto an image of what they think a family should be.expectations-family-letting goA friend recently told me that her brother had manipulated their mother into taking $10,000 from the bank and giving it to him. It is, of course, not about the money—whether it is $10,000, $100,000 or $10—it is about the manipulation and sense of betrayal.

Letting go of unrealistic expectations can be so difficult, but holding onto them is much more painful. Wishing and hoping that people will act in a certain way is a set-up for disappointment.expectations-family-letting goBut it must be fairly common to have high expectations for our families, because I keep meeting people who are surprised by some relative’s actions—like my friend who expected her brother to keep his hands off their mother’s money.

My family was perfect in that it was a great training ground for me in letting go. As a young child, I learned that more often than not things were not going to turn out as I hoped, so I needed to readjust my expectations. Over time, I have learned to ask God, What is the invitation in this? What am I to learn when my expectations are not met, when I am disappointed?

The lesson is usually about my unrealistic expectations, and the invitation is to let go.expectations-family-letting go