Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

Creating space for the spiritual

My grandparents came from Poland, and my parents spoke Polish as their first language. They learned English in school but spoke Polish at home. Their religious training—what my grandparents handed on to them about the beliefs, customs and the rituals of their faith—was also in Polish.

Like many people who learn English as their second language, my parents spoke with an accent, and they were self-conscious about it. I don’t know what kind of ridicule they endured, but it was enough that they did not want their children to be treated as they had been, so they decided not to teach us Polish. They wanted their children to fit in and be like other Americans.

But because my parents’ faith was expressed in Polish, my religious instruction was limited to what I learned at weekly catechism classes.

I was not aware of the impact of this until I became an adult and began to see how little I knew about my faith. “I missed that lesson,” was my common response when other Catholics spoke about matters of faith. There was so much I did not know.

I did not even know how to pray the rosary!

At some point in my young adult life, though, I realized that my ignorance of Church teachings had not gotten in the way of my developing a relationship with God.

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From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in some special way. I seemed to see things from a slightly different angle than others, and I drew conclusions that left adults baffled. My father used to say, “You didn’t learn that in this house,” when I would offer an opinion that was shaped by my relationship with God.

Through the Sunday readings, I had gotten to know Jesus’ story well enough to feel close to him. He became a brother to me.

I loved the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion. Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane was my anguish. His cry to God—why have you abandoned me?—was also my cry.

Jesus, like me, was an innocent victim.

Jesus got me in a way no one else in my life did, and I was so grateful for this connection. I felt like Jesus saw me and understood what I was going through, and I leaned into that relationship.

I could talk to Jesus about what was happening in my life, and I shared my fears and anxieties with him, knowing he was not going to tell anyone. I trusted him completely.

My spiritual life grew out mystery and grace, and my lived experience of Jesus drew me closer to God.

I began to go deep within myself to that space at my core where God dwelt, where God’s spirit lived as a small flame. By the time I was a teen, I could sit in silent meditation for long periods of time, happily connecting with Jesus and the Spirit of God within me.

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What is unique to you?

I have started thinking about retirement, and I know myself well enough to know that even though I will stop going to an office every day, I will need to do something, because I am not good at being idle.

I have been asking in prayer what God wants me to do in the next chapter of my life and have made lists of possible ways to fill my retirement—from dog walker to non-profit consultant.

Some days, I long to do something that requires very little thought or preparation, and other days, I feel a responsibility to pay forward what I have learned from my work.

“What is uniquely yours?” my spiritual director asked when I raised the subject of my next chapter. She believes I have a responsibility to pass on what God has given me, a message I have heard from her before and others throughout my life.

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I have had so many “unique” experiences—from living in l’Arche and serving as a Mennonite volunteer to leading a lay mission program that took me to different parts of the world. I have been blessed!

Since that conversation with my spiritual director, I have tried to be more attentive to what might be uniquely mine and how God may be inviting me to share what I have been given.

Each fall, I co-facilitate a day of reflection for our local Jesuit Volunteers, a group of post-college young adults who are dedicating a year to service in Detroit. My talk is on the spirituality of community, and I base most of my talk on my experiences in l’Arche.

I talk about my failures in community living and how my unrealistic expectations got in the way of being a good community member.

Lots of people fail at living in Christian community, so that is not unique to me, but being willing and able to talk publicly about my failure might put me in a more rarified group.

Prayer is another part of that talk, and I share some practical tips about theological reflection and Lectio Divina—also not uniquely mine, but perhaps my take on prayer is unique to me.

Then, two weeks ago at my book group, the topic of spirits came up. We were discussing The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, the story of an African American family living in Detroit. One of the sons in the story encounters a haint, a spirit that is part of some Southern traditions, which led to the discussion of spirits and our experiences of the supernatural.

I shared one of my mystical experiences, something I rarely do, because I have spent my life trying to seem normal, typical, ordinary—and having mystical experiences is anything but normal, typical or ordinary.

It was an aha moment—my mystical visions are unique to me. Throughout my life, God has given me intense prayer experiences and visions that have helped me, but which I have rarely shared with others. Is that my next chapter?

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Birthdays in heaven

Jim and I used to celebrate our “feast days”—mine is July 22, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and his was July 25, the feast of St. James. During my morning prayer on each of those days recently, I recalled how we would mark these occasions—usually with a card and a small gift related to our patron saint.

Although Jim is no longer physically present, I still feel close to him, especially on days that were significant when he was alive.

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At lunch with friends the other day, one mentioned that her grandson’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks. This is will be the second birthday “since he is gone,” she said. The expression birthdays in heaven came to mind. Although her grandson is no longer physically present, his presence is still very strong, and she wants to mark his birthday.

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A few weeks ago, I facilitated a bereavement group at the cancer support center where I work. A dozen people talked about the pain of loss and the process of grief. They were strangers before coming to this group, and now they are connected by their shared experience of loss.

At the end of the meeting, the conversation took on a different tone as they planned their monthly Saturday dinner together.

Hope and resiliency were the words that came to mind as the air in the room became lighter. In the midst of deep sorrow, these twelve people were excited about their upcoming dinner.

Life is so often that kind of balancing act; sorrow and joy sitting side by side.

We hold all kinds of sorrows—because of death, dashed dreams, family members lost to addictions, betrayals, health issues and so on—and yet we also hold hope that things will get better.

And if we can hold onto that hope, things usually do get better.

We learn to carry our sorrow without letting it overwhelm us. We remember good times and discover deep gratitude for what had once been. We create a niche in our hearts where we store happy memories.

These experiences of loss change our lives and change us. They can increase our capacity for empathy and compassion, and they can teach us what really matters in life.

Moving through loss and grief can take a long time. People can get stuck in grief, fearing that to let go of sorrow would be a betrayal to those who have died or perhaps finding consolation in the identity of someone who is bereft.

That seems to be the exception, though; most people find a way to move through grief to a new normal—not the same as what once was, but good in a different way.

After their dinner, several members of the bereavement group reported that they had fun. One man brought each of them a loaf of bread from his daughter’s bakery. Small acts of generosity can lift spirits and awaken hope.

What can you do today that will generate hope?

Be God’s

“Let go of everything,” I thought as the Reiki Master placed her hands on my head.

Then I heard the words, “Be God’s.”

Be God’s what? I wondered. Vessel? Daughter? Voice?

Or is the emphasis on “be,” as in belong to God?

Throughout the Reiki treatment, I tried to let go of thoughts about work and other responsibilities and instead pondered the message to “be God’s.”

Over the next few days, I kept repeating those two words—”Be God’s.”

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What does it mean to be God’s? to belong to God?

I think of myself as already knowing my dependence on God and being God’s creation, so what is this invitation?

Some of the saints came to mind and the ways they were God’s, the ways they lived their lives totally for God and God’s glory.

St. Frances Cabrini prayed, “Help me to desire always that which is pleasing and acceptable to you so that your will may be my will.”

I aspire to that kind of intimacy with God, but I haven’t achieved it. Just ask anyone who knows me.  

That very morning, in fact, just hours before the Reiki treatment, I made a big mistake when I misread a situation. So often, I speak before I think, and then I need to apologize. This was one of those incidents.

Sometimes, when I mess up, I send flowers, but always a note just to make sure the person knows I know that I made a mistake.

In response to my blunder that morning, I had spent that day wondering how to atone. I knew I needed to do something beyond just saying “Sorry,” because one word was not enough to undo the harm of my offensive words.

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But that is the thing about God and about being God’s—God never gives up on me and keeps calling me back, again and again. Only hours after I mess up, I hear God saying, “Be mine.”

Was this simple two-word phrase simply a reminder of God’s forgiveness? Of God’s love?

Or was it tied into something bigger, more comprehensive? Is God inviting me into a new way of being in relationship?

Monday was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the woman who most inspires me in my spiritual journey because of her devotion to Jesus. When everyone else fled, Mary Magdalene remained, and when she encountered the resurrected Jesus, she proclaimed it with confidence. Her relationship with Jesus healed her and changed her.

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I want to be like Mary Magdalene—devoted to Jesus, open to being surprised and ready to witness to the ways Jesus enters my life.

St. Paul wrote “…whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away…new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

This reading reminds me that who I once was I am no longer; who I will become is still being revealed. I pray to be open to the what God is offering because more than anything, I want to be God’s.

Transformation

“That must be so difficult,” people often say when they learn I work at a cancer support center.

“It can be,” I reply.

Every day, people tell us of their fears and anxieties, stories of their financial troubles because of the cost of medical care and the difficult decisions they face regarding treatment options.

Where can they get money to relieve their financial troubles? Should they continue with treatment knowing it is only prolonging life for a short time? Should they try an experimental treatment when traditional options have failed?

Dealing with vulnerability can be very challenging and even difficult.

But my work can also be very gratifying.

I get to see fears and anxieties melt away when people feel heard and their concerns validated. I am privileged to watch people support one another and see them move from fear to trust, from despair to hope. Every day, I see transformation.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, I had a few “melt-downs,” moments when my patience ran out or my fears overwhelmed me. Sometimes I yelled. Other times, I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. Afterward, I felt guilty. Here was Jim, facing his death—and there I was, wallowing in self-pity. Remorse and shame engulfed me.

Then one day at the grocery store, I met my neighbor’s daughter who was caring for both her ill husband and aged mother. It must have been just after a melt-down, because I confessed my bad behavior. Delores waved me off. “It happens,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she, too, gets tired and frustrated, and how she, too, has been known to yell or cry.

“It’s normal,” She said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Before that encounter, I had felt like a terrible person, the only person in the world who would yell at a man dying from brain cancer. Talking with Delores, though, gave me a different perspective and helped me let go of the high expectations I had for myself.

I walked away from that encounter telling myself, “You are not Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” and then realizing that even Mother Teresa probably had melt-downs. We are all human.

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The value of sharing our human fears and weaknesses is not restricted to cancer care.

I have also seen it when adults walked into the literacy center where I worked in Pennsylvania, feeling inadequate and shameful because of their lack of literacy skills—and then meeting other adults are in the same boat.

I experienced it the first time I attended a gathering of adult children of alcoholics and realized I was not alone, that others understood my experience because they had gone through something similar.

Once that understanding of a shared experience happens—whatever the experience—healing can begin.

Admitting my fear, confessing my shame or giving voice to my secret can be cathartic and can lead to greater compassion—for myself and for others.

When has that been true for you?

Tips for the spiritual journey

The spiritual life invites us to turn away from cultural ideals of power, success and accumulation and to embrace vulnerability, simplicity and poverty. Spirituality speaks of surrender, sacrifice, discipline and detachment.

But we are immersed in our culture, swimming in it, so it can be difficult even to see our attachments and recognize what needs to be let go.

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Some suggestions for the spiritual journey:

~Our culture may demand productivity, but God desires our presence and openness. Doing more (more praying, reading, etc.) and believing we have control of spiritual outcomes can be counterproductive, because our efforts alone will not produce spiritual results.

In the spiritual life, our task is to be open to receive whatever God sends; God does the rest.

A good first step is to let go of our assumptions and expectations and to accept what God sends. Set aside time every day to be present to God and to receive the gift of God’s love.

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~Don’t compare your spiritual journey with another’s. Each of us is at a different place and only God knows where we are meant to be. Accept where you are and focus on your own growth.

Matthew 20:1-16 tells of workers who came early in the day and agreed to a wage. Others came to work later in the day, yet they received the same wage as those who worked a full day. The all-day workers protested. The owner reminded them that they got the agreed-upon wage, adding: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God’s mercy and love is extravagant and abundant. When we are the recipients, it is wonderful. But when we look around and see others we deem as less worthy receiving the same abundance, it can seem we got cheated. Don’t look around.

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~Practice mindfulness. Learning to notice what we notice helps develop awareness of where God is moving in our lives. Stop once or twice a day and look back over the past few hours. When did you feel closest to God? And when did you feel most distant from God?

Learn to look openly at what brings you into harmony with God and what distances you from God, trusting that the Holy Spirit is engaged in both.

Growing in awareness helps us make small course corrections that enable us to be more tuned into God’s movement in our lives.

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~Practice gratitude. Gratitude creates an awareness of the blessings and graces being poured into our lives, but which we can dismiss or not even notice because we are not looking.

Begin by noticing how often you say, “thank you.” Make note of small gifts and blessings you receive throughout the day. It can be as simple as someone holding a door open for you or a patient driver.

Offer thanks for every little thing because gratitude begets gratitude.

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Standing in my beliefs

“I guess I didn’t go there enough,” a friend said after her favorite restaurant closed. She wasn’t being arrogant, as if she alone could have saved the restaurant; she was talking about the choices she had made and the consequences of those choices.

My friend’s comment got me thinking about the choices I make and if my choices give witness to what I say is important to me.

I began to pay more attention to where I spend my time and money, and I came to see that where I go—the places where I literally put my body—gives witness to what I value and believe.

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Matthew 25:31-46 shaped my early relationship with Jesus. This scripture passage instructed me to put my body at the service at the most vulnerable people in my community, and I took seriously the call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and visit those in prison. I wanted to live this scripture faithfully, and after college I explored different options.

On my first visit to l’Arche, while praying in the chapel, I asked God for a sign if I was meant to live in this community. Two community members entered the chapel and sat on either side of me. They closed their eyes and bowed their heads in silent prayer.

It felt like a sign.

At the time, I thought that my deep desire to live the mandate of Matthew 25:31-46, along with past training and work experience, made me an ideal candidate to live in l’Arche. I saw myself as some sort of bearer of the Good News, bringing all my knowledge of what people with disabilities needed to make their lives more meaningful.

It didn’t take long after moving to l’Arche, though, to realize that what I thought of as my gifts were really stumbling blocks.

I had some dark days in l’Arche, when I felt completely powerless and near despair, and I cried out to God, “I didn’t have to move here; I could have learned this from a book.”

But the truth was that I needed to be in that place, stripped of my professional reputation and public persona, so that I could see that I, too, am one of the “least” that Matthew was talking about—that I, too, needed to be fed and clothed and cared for.

One particularly dark day I told my spiritual director that I felt like I was falling apart. 

“No,” she said. “I think you are falling together.”

“Let go,” God seemed to be saying to me—of my need to be in control, to be right, to know better.

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Once I accepted myself as powerless, God could work with me.

l’Arche taught me that Matthew 25:31-46 invites me to do more than stand beside vulnerable people; it invites me to see myself as one of the “least,” because standing is my vulnerability allows God to love and heal me.