Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

compassion-God-love

Growing in love

Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:31

Whenever I encountered this Scripture passage, I used to think, “Poor neighbors,” what a low bar. Shouldn’t I love my neighbors at least a bit more than I love myself?

I didn’t love myself very much in my young life. I saw myself as lacking in most every way, never quite measuring up, more often messing up.

I might have re-written the passage to read, Love your neighbors as you want to be loved—or possibly Love yourself as you love your neighbors, because I can be much more accepting, compassionate and forgiving of others.

My capacity for self-love was definitely deficient.

Growing up, I knew that God loved me, and it was always a mystery why or how God could love someone I saw as so broken. It was probably my biggest Yes, but, as in “I know God loves me, but…” followed by my litany of deficiencies—all the reasons God must be wrong to love me.

Recently, one of my neighbors ripped out his front lawn. I don’t know why he did it—maybe it was dying or too weedy; maybe he just got tired of it or just did not like it and wanted something new and different.

I walked past his grassless front yard for a few weeks and then one day there was a beautiful new lawn—lush, green and weed-free. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could rip out what is undesirable in me and instantaneously replace it with something new and beautiful, completely erase whatever was old, worn or ugly?compassion-God-loveBut that is not how it has worked in my life. Years of therapy helped me to redefine myself more realistically. Years of prayer helped me to begin to see myself as God sees me.

I had to learn to set good boundaries and practice owning what is mine, figuring out what I believe and reinforcing that—and letting go of negative views. I wrote affirmations on little pieces of paper and taped them to my bathroom mirror, stuck them to my refrigerator with magnets and placed them in small picture frames. Reading these affirmations every day eventually began to push aside negative messages and replace them with God messages.compassion-God-loveI was restructuring the landscape of my inner self, but it was not as instantaneous as laying sod.

When I was in therapy in my thirties, I used to practice my boundary-setting out loud. When I recognized that I was regurgitating someone else’s negative belief (about myself or anything else), I would identify it. “So and so needs to say…” and then I would say, “But I want to say…” about whatever it was what I believed, or what belief I was growing into.compassion-God-loveGrowing in self-compassion has strengthened my boundaries and improved my self-esteem. To love myself as God loves me is my desire. Only then am I able to truly love others as I love myself—and as God loves them.compassion-God-love

 

reflection-God-prayer

Slow me down, Lord

Slow me down, Lord.

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.

Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

Give me, amid the confusion of this day, the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of the singing streams that live in my memory. Help me to know the magical restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking minute vacations — of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog, to read a few lines from a good book. Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and tortoise, that I may know that the race is not always to the swift — there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life’s enduring values, that I may grow toward the start of my greater destiny.

~Richard Cardinal Cushing

We live in a culture that seems obsessed with speed. Our everyday language affirms our preoccupation with speed: we have fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows, expressways and instant messaging. We can’t seem to stop or even slow down.

I recently read that Michigan is increasing the speed limit to 75 miles per hour on several roads because that was how fast people were driving anyway.

Faster is better seems to be our national mantra.

And now we have added busyness to the equation—because moving fast means we finished everything and then, what? Have some empty space in our lives? No time for doing nothing—we have to keep moving and doing.

I think Cardinal Cushing was onto something, though, when he wrote the Slow me down, Lord prayer.

My brother recently visited from Arizona and we went on morning walks at a park on the lake near my house. Swans, ducks and geese swam by as people fished from the shoreline or out in boats. No rush, no hurry, no busyness—just life slowly going by.reflection-God-prayerI can easily fill up my days with lots of activities and then rush around to accomplish as much as possible. But that is not how I want to live. I want to have periods of silence every day, to ponder the glory of creation and to pay attention to the gifts God is giving me.

I want to be available to the people God brings to me, to be able to sit and listen to what they need to say. At the cancer support center where I work, someone invites me every day to slow down, to take a few minutes to listen to their joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of the cancer journey.

 

Slow me down, Lord.reflection-God-prayer

God-blessing-hope-cancer

Everyday blessings

“…the works of God are to be declared and made known.” (Tobit 12:7)

Before Mass every Sunday, our Pastor declares, God is good, and the congregation responds, all the time. All the time, he says, and we affirm, God is good.

This ritual helps prepare me for worship, and I try to be present to these words and allow images of God’s goodness from the previous week to float into my consciousness. God’s goodness is something I can take for granted since it happens all the time. I need to remind myself that God’s goodness is not humdrum or tedious, but rather is a great gift that needs to be declared and made known.

But, how do I tell of God’s works in my life?

When I was clearing out my journals last week, I came across a Gratitude Journal—lists of things for which I was grateful, an accounting of God’s generosity to me in everyday life. No narrative—just the facts.God-blessing-hope-cancerBut writing things in a journal is not the same as declaring and making known. Journaling is a good thing to do—to remind myself of all the blessings I received in a day—but if it stops there, I feel like I am missing something. Declaring and making known imply telling others about the good works of God.God-blessing-hope-cancerLast fall, we had an intern from a local university at the cancer support center where I work. She told me that when the internship opportunities were posted, no one wanted the cancer support center. Cancer? Too difficult, too sad, too depressing. But this young woman was up for the challenge. She worked at a doctor’s office and had experience with people getting bad health news and making decisions about treatment and sometimes having to face the fact that treatment was not working.

“The other interns don’t know what they are missing,” she said one day. We were reflecting on the good things that happen at work every day.

Yes, there are difficulties and sadness and plenty of reasons for people to be depressed, but there are also many opportunities for joy, hope and gratitude as people accept and encourage one another.

Even through the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and the ugliness of treatment, God’s works are evident. Perhaps it is in the deepest suffering that God can do his best work.

This past week, a man brought his fiancée to a support group. He and I chatted while she was in the group. He told me that he was tired of hearing her say, “You don’t know what I am going through,” and he was happy to have found this place where she could be with others who do know what she is going through. His relief was palpable. After chatting for a while, he said, “I think I will move up our wedding date.” Now that is a sign of hope!

God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. Declare it.God-blessing-hope-cancer

God-transformation-vulnerability

Stepping into the future

I am usually a quick learner when it comes to concrete tasks, but learning abstract things—not so much. I am abstract-challenged. (I am also spatially-challenged, and maybe they go hand-in-­hand.)

When it comes to learning about myself and my emotional/spiritual/psychological self—those abstract characteristics—I have to admit that I am a slow learner. Processing new information about myself can take a long time.

Thankfully, God is very patient and never seems to tire of reminding me of areas where I need to change and grow.

At Mass last Sunday, three heart messages caught my attention. After the third, I wondered if anyone else in the congregation was getting this message or was God mainly speaking to me? I also wondered when I would actually get the message—take it in and make it a part of myself so that God (and I) can move on to something new. God has been inviting me to soften my heart for as long as I can remember.

And there they were last Sunday—three references to the heart, to my heart.God-transformation-vulnerabilityLast weekend, I also did a major house cleaning and clearing out, including journals from the past twenty years. My plan had been to read them one more time and save anything that seemed important, but I could not seem to get started on that project. One day, it occurred to me to just throw them all away. Even thinking that thought made me feel lighter and freer. And when I hauled the contractor-size black trash bag to the curb, I felt a space open up inside me.

I am done with the past; I want to move on into the future. I want a fresh start.God-transformation-vulnerabilityBut there was God reminding me of my heart. If I had taken the time to read my old journals, I know the heart theme would be a thread throughout. Will I ever get the message?  Will I ever make the leap of faith that will move me toward becoming a soft-hearted person?

Open my heart, I pray

To love

To joy

To fun

To happiness—and yes, even to the possibility of pain and sorrow. They go hand in hand.God-transformation-vulnerabilityOpen my heart, I pray. Create fissures where fear can escape and light can get in. Create spaces in my heart, gaps ready to be filled in—with trust, hope and love.God-transformation-vulnerabilityI want love, hope and trust and the blessings they will bring. I want a heart big enough to hold pains and sorrows and still have room for love—a heart that won’t shy away from grief but be pliable enough to hold both loss and hope.God-transformation-vulnerabilityI pray that God reshape my heart into something more closely aligned with his vision for me, a heart able to absorb the pain and sorrow of my life and of the world, able to live with loss—and still see beauty and hope—and to embrace the gift in all of it.

mindful-grief-transformation

It is not all right with me

I went to San Francisco a few weeks ago for a workshop on grief. One of my intentions was to notice what I notice. Whether I was walking the grounds of the retreat center—hearing birds and seeing flowers, trees and bugs—or sitting in a workshop session, I tried to be present and mindful.mindful-grief-transformationWhen the presenter spoke, I tried to pay attention to the words that caught my attention and the images and memories that came to me. When others shared, I listened attentively and also noted my reactions and feelings—trying to pay attention to what was stirred up inside me.

The whole weekend felt like one continuous prayer where I was trying to be open to God’s invitation to gain insight and freedom. I was there to learn, not only what the workshop had to offer, but also what God was offering to me.

I had brought with me my losses and grief—and also hopes for insight and transformation—and hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:3-5).

It is not all right with me was a prompt I used for one of the workshop’s writing exercises. It was from a list of “protest” prompts which included:

I say it matters

Enough

I will not live small

No more

I will not pretend

I survived.

We were instructed to write for ten minutes without stopping, to keep the pen moving and let flow whatever flowed.

In part, I wrote, “It is not all right with me that anyone not take me seriously, that I be ignored or discounted. It is not all right with me that my opinion be dismissed or my beliefs be minimized….It is not all right with me to have the value of my experience doubted or belittled.”

Since returning home, I have read my journal entries from the workshop several times, and this section of my journal keeps catching my attention.

I tried to recall the last time someone did not take me seriously or dismissed me or my beliefs, and I realized that I am the person who does this. I am the queen of “yes, but…” when someone compliments me or asks me to share something. I demur, believing others have much more to offer than I.

I am guilty of discounting my experiences, of dismissing my mindful-grief-transformationopinions and minimizing my beliefs. I am the one who tends to belittle my experience and doubt my own reality.

It was an “aha” moment about complicity in not taking myself seriously. No matter how much affirmation I get, I tend to minimize my experience and accomplishments. It was also a moment for self-compassion, another theme of the workshop.mindful-grief-transformationI pray to be open to the invitations God offers for transformation and self-compassion. I pray to be more trusting in the positive messages from others than the negative messages I tell myself. I pray to lean into God and allow God’s love to fill me. I pray to say, “Yes” without adding the “but.”mindful-grief-transformation

 

 

 

 

 

 

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

patience-faith-god

Patience and faith

The forsythia in my back yard had very few flowers the past three springs. I pruned it every spring since I moved here, hoping it would produce abundant blooms. A friend who knows about such things told me there are some varieties that flower less and suggested I consider getting a different variety. I was about to give up on my forsythia, and then it bloomed.faith-patience-GodBe patient, Madeline, I heard God saying.

A few weeks later, I was at a retreat center that has a labyrinth. During a workshop break, I visited the labyrinth and started to walk meditatively along the outer circle. At the first turn in the path, I stopped and looked at the stone in the middle. The brochure had said it was a symbol of Jacob meeting God. I pondered that for a bit and then I had an impulse to just walk to the middle, to skip the layers of circles and jump to the center.faith-patience-godThe words of Teilhard de Chardin came to me.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

 And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

 Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 Be patient, God again said to me.

Patience is a virtue that I can work on, and it seems God is inviting me to develop this virtue.patience-faith-godFaith, on the other hand, is a gift that is about desire and openness.

Taken together, patience and faith invite me to let go of my expectations and my rush-to-the-end attitude. They invite me to accept what is just the way it is, and to move against my tendency to want things to be other than they are.

Patience and faith invite me to lean into God and let God lead me, to accept what is with gratitude and even joy. Opening my hands to receive what God offers, waiting for the gift and holding it loosely enough that I don’t crush it—that is the stance of patience and faith.

Like the forsythia in my yard, I want to surprise the people who have tended to me by trusting God’s grace and becoming the person God intended.
faith-patience-God