Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

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

affirmation-dog-vulnerability

Asking for what I want or need

My dog Detroit is very good at letting me know when someone is at the door or the phone is ringing or there is a squirrel in the yard. Even though I assure her that I know these things and she does not need to bark, it does no good. She will bark incessantly until I answer the door or the phone—or let her out to chase the squirrel.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityShe seems to think it is her job to warn me of these perceived threats.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityBut in other situations, Detroit is likely to sit quietly and wait for me to intuit what she wants. Sometimes, I find her lying by the back door waiting to go out or sitting by the pantry that holds her treats. Then I say to her, “Use your words.”

It seems to me that she is good at telling me when she thinks I am in danger, but not so good about telling me what she needs or wants.

I wonder if she learned that from me. Has she watched me sit home waiting for someone to ask me to go out? Is she tired of being hugged because I am afraid to ask for a hug from anyone else?

Sometimes on Saturday mornings when I am cleaning the house, I turn on pop music and dance while I clean. If Detroit comes into the room, I might pick her up and dance with her. I can almost hear her say, Get a life.

I admit it: I am not good at using my words to ask for what I need or want.

What words do I use to let someone know I want a treat—whether it is something sweet or a hug or an affirmation? How do I ask to go out, to be with others and have some fun?affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince moving to Michigan four years ago, and leaving behind people who knew me very well, I have been even more challenged to ask for what I want or need. Admitting I need or want anything makes me feel vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable is one of my least favorite things.

After I was here for about two years, my spiritual director commented that it didn’t seem that I was initiating social contacts. She was right. My grief and sadness at all I had lost or left behind had incapacitated me from initiating. I just did not have the energy to risk rejection.

And I could see how harmful that was. I was spiraling deeper and deeper into myself; it was a grand pity party.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince then, I have pushed myself to ask friends to go to concerts or out to dinner, and I do more things on my own, like visiting art galleries.

But, I know I have a ways to go in asking for what I need or want. Telling Detroit to use her words is a great prompt for me look at how well I am doing at using my words.

 

faith-suffering-transformation

Embrace the cross

The veneration of the cross is part of our Good Friday service. At my parish, a large cross is carried in and placed in the center aisle in front of the altar. Our pastor asks that we remove our shoes before we approach the cross—we are standing on holy ground.

One by one, parishioners approach, bow and then kiss the cross. It is moving to watch this procession of hundreds of people as we commemorate the death of our Lord.faith-suffering-transformationA mother and her little girl caught my attention as they approached the cross.

At the Holy Thursday Mass the previous evening, they sat next to me, and the little girl—maybe three or four years old—was very friendly. She smiled and waved as they took their seats before Mass began, and she reached out to everyone around us during the gesture of peace.

At the Good Friday service, the little girl stayed a few steps behind as her mother approached the cross. The mother kissed the cross and moved aside. Then the little girl walked up to the cross, threw her arms around the wood and hugged the cross.faith-suffering-transformationEmbrace the cross, I thought.

I wonder if this little girl will remember the moment that she hugged the cross. Will she grow up to be someone who will embrace her sufferings? Right now, she seems so innocent and unscathed. But doesn’t everyone suffer something at some time? Something that leaves a scar? Some hurt that needs to be transformed?

Her spontaneous gesture reminded me of my own reactions to Good Friday when I was a child. I, too, embraced the cross.

I connected with Jesus’ suffering and recognized a kindred spirit in him. His innocence touched my own. His abandonment spoke to my own sense of betrayal. Jesus suffered along with me—or was it that I was suffering along with him? I’m not sure, but I know that his calling out to God showed me that I was not alone. Jesus was with me as I called to God for help.

But I got stuck on Good Friday, and for many years, I clung to the darkness of it; darkness seemed to be a perfect image for my life.

Then, at some point, I realized that Jesus had moved beyond that despair to resurrection, and that he invited me to move beyond my own misery into the light.faith-suffering-transformationAs I watched that little girl hugging the cross on Good Friday, I remembered an aha moment many years ago when I knew that I needed to hug my own hurt, that I had to welcome my past and embrace it if I wanted to be healed.

Good Friday is not the end; it is one part of the journey toward resurrection. Good Friday anticipates Easter Sunday and the promise of transforming my pain into gift and even blessing. Only by embracing my cross can I be healed and move on to live in Easter hope and joy. Alleluia.faith-suffering-transformation

God-Easter-hope

From death to life

Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) have long been my favorite time of the liturgical year.God-Easter-hopeI love hearing the Passion twice in one week and watching the pageantry of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil touches my heart and invites me to renewal in a unique way. The baptisms and confirmations of people choosing my faith as their own always strengthens my faith and makes me more hopeful.

Since 2002, Holy Week has the added significance of being the week my dad died. It was Monday of Holy Week (March 25 that year), and every Holy Week Monday is now a memorial day for me.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday in 2002, the hospice nurse called and said, “Your dad is ready to die, but your mother won’t let go. You have to come home.”  I explained that I was coming home for Easter and already had my ticket for Thursday. “No, you have to come now,” she insisted. So I changed my ticket and came home the next day, Palm Sunday.

Contemplating Jesus’ Passion and death that year, while my dad was also dying, brought new, deeper meaning to the mystery of death and resurrection.

Once my mother let go of my dad, once she truly said good-bye to him, he died within an hour. The nurse was right; he was ready.God-Easter-hopeThen five years, ago, my friend Jim died on Tuesday of Holy Week (April 3 that year), adding another memorial to an already meaningful time.

On Palm Sunday 2012, almost nine months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, we knew Jim was close to death. He ate his last meal that Sunday afternoon, spent the next day in bed, and died early Tuesday morning.

Their deaths, occurring during this holiest time of the year, has deepened my understanding of the Paschal mystery—how death is part of life and how new life can come from death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)God-Easter-hopeI ask myself what fruit has been produced by their deaths—and the deaths of others I have loved.

One fruit is my deep awareness of how fortunate I am to have loved and been loved. I know myself as blessed, even in the absence of those I love.

St. John Chrysostom said, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they once were. They are now whenever we are.”

It is true that my dad, Jim and all the other people I have lost are no longer present in physical form, but I carry them in my heart, and they are with me in a different way. I think of them often, and their lives and deaths help me to live each day in awareness of the fragility of life and in gratitude for all that is.
God-Easter-hope

 

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

heart-prayer-vulnerability

Still noticing what I notice

My annual retreats can have long-lasting effects, and some themes from this year’s retreat continue to affect me. One theme was to notice what I notice; another was my heart and how I over-protect it.

A few weeks ago, I was searching for images related to prayer when an image of a partially-covered heart caught my attention.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI kept coming back to this image, even though it was not what I had been seeking. But something in that heart was speaking to me, drawing me in. It was as if God was whispering to me, reveal your heart.

Perhaps God was using this image to remind me of the connection between my heart and prayer and how I need to be more vulnerable in prayer. Perhaps God was using this image as an invitation to open my heart to God and to the people I see every day.

I find my heart being stirred as I listen to the stories of people at the cancer support center where I work. Listening, I think, requires a soft heart, one that can hear without judgment, one that can hold pain and suffering alongside gratitude and hope.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI have come to believe that most people who come to our center want to be heard as much as anything else. They want to talk about their fears and anxieties and hopes. They want to be acknowledged and affirmed.

My role is to listen to what is being said and to listen even more deeply to what is not being said. I try to pause before I speak, and I am learning to ask more questions than to offer answers. I hear myself asking, “What do you think it means?” or saying, “Tell me more about that.” And then I listen.heart-prayer-vulnerabilitySometimes, things seem much clearer to me than they seem to be to the person sitting in front of me. A significant weight loss or a change in skin color can indicate something has changed, even though the person may be unaware or in denial. Is it my job to say what I notice? I wonder.

It is so much easier to see things in others than in myself; my blind spots keep my own truths hidden. But, I believe that God is clueing me into my blind spots by what I notice in others—and inviting me to reflect back on my own issues.

So, for example, when I am particularly aware of someone being critical or judgmental, I ask myself if that awareness is connected to my own tendencies to be critical or judgmental. When I notice someone being impatient, I check my own level of patience; the same goes for fear or anger or resentment or….

Noticing what I notice helps slow me down and pay attention what is in front of me—whether it is a word in scripture or an image on my computer or someone sharing their fears. God continues to invite me to slow down and notice.
heart-prayer-vulnerability