Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

God-aging-wisdom

My wild and precious life

We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.

As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.

Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.

“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.

I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.

My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.

She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.

That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.

When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.

When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.

Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.

God-aging-wisdom
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God-vulnerability-faith

Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

God-vulnerability-faith
God-vulnerability-fear

Healing what has withered

He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. Mark 3:1

My daily prayer book included a reflection question related to this Scripture passage: What has withered in my spiritual life that needs Jesus’ attention?

Good question. Has my prayer life become stagnant? Am I being open to the Spirit moving in my life? Am I thinking big thoughts, or have I boxed God into a small set of fixed ideas?

I pondered the scene in this reading—Jesus entering the Synagogue, seeing the man with the withered hand and calling him forward. The man steps up and in front of everybody, Jesus shines a spotlight on this man’s deformity. I can feel myself cringe.

Would I want Jesus to call me forward and point out something that has withered in me? I think not.

I like to believe that my deformities are better hidden that this man’s withered hand.

But I know that is not really the truth. I know that Jesus—and most everyone around me—can see what is withered in me. Others can often see more clearly what needs to be healed in me than I can, as they watch my fears and anxieties play out in everyday life.

I need to name those inner parts of me that are withered in order to be healed. Like the man in the scripture, I need to step forward and present what has withered inside me and ask for healing.

“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus tells the man in the Synagogue. I can see it—wholeness restored.

And for me? What needs to be stretched out? To be restored to wholeness?

I have been told that I am formidable, and I know people see me as being strong. And I am—or can be. But I can also be fragile and vulnerable.

Breaking through the tough shell—through my formidability—and being able to live in vulnerability is where my wholeness is found. It is that place that Jesus invites me to again and again, to touch my weakness and vulnerability.

In Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves….

I resonate with the invitation to that kind of openness and honesty.  Not trying so hard to impress—or at least not to disappoint—but accepting what is, who I am, and loving what I love.

Healing and wholeness are found in that space, that place where I can recognize what is withered in me, where I can acknowledge my limitations and accept weakness and welcome healing.

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

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God-vulnerability-trust

Fearless

My friend Ted was a very private person. He often confided in me, but always with the admonition not to tell anyone.

“Who would I tell?” was my usual retort, and he would recite a list of our friends.

“They wouldn’t care,” I would say, and he would mutter something under his breath. But he knew I was trustworthy, that I would not tell.

I am good at keeping secrets. My eight years of working for the FBI gave me lots of practice in keeping all kinds of secrets. Plus, if we had a family coat of arms, our motto would be Don’t tell. I came to the FBI as a fully-formed secret-keeper.

I was such an obvious secret-keeper that people sought me out to pour out their hidden lives.

True confessions was how I thought of those occasions when co-workers would reveal to me their deepest, darkest secrets. The stories usually began with “I have never told anyone this, but….”  I knew who was having affairs, who had had abortions and who had been abused as children. I knew of betrayals and dashed hopes. I knew the fears and anxieties traumatic life events could create. I listened and kept their confidences.

Somehow, I seemed to have the capacity to receive these sacred sharings. It felt like a God thing—and a mystery to me, the way people sought me out. People needed to talk, and I could listen. And after hearing someone’s confession, I released what I had heard, offering it as a prayer to God for healing.

These were one-sided conversations, though, because I kept my own secrets to myself.

Then, in my late twenties, I heard the slogan, You are only as sick as your secrets. If my secrets were the measure of my health, I was in deep trouble, because I kept lots of them. I knew government secrets from working at the FBI, other people’s secrets and my own.

When I heard that slogan, something shook loose inside me. I began to consider my secrets.

Mine were not so different from those others had confided in me. So, why was I holding onto them so tightly? What was I protecting? I looked for someone in whom I could confide and took baby steps in revealing my secrets. With each true confession, I felt lighter, freed from the burden of the secret.

God-vulnerability-trust

I came to understand that what happened in the past could not hurt me in the present, and I came to see myself as a survivor. Sharing helped me see my strengths and showed me how resilient I am.

Over the years, I have shared more and more of my past and now I am quite public.

If I had a family coat of arms, I would want my motto to be Nothing to prove, nothing to fear, nothing to hide. I want to be transparent and to accept myself as I truly am. I see that as the way to health and freedom.

God-vulnerability-trust
grief-hope-blessing

Unconventional grief

In Chapter four of A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Mending Loss and Sorrow,” Jake Owensby introduced me to the term “unconventional grief.”

            “Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury of mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table. This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death…unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger” (Page 56).

I was familiar with the concept.

In 2002, my friend Jim did something completely out of character. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim?” I asked and then added, “You must have a brain tumor.” He blamed his action on being tired, but I was not convinced.

Jim was a man of routine. He was predictable, dependable.

So when he acted oddly on that day in 2002, I knew something was wrong.

And from then on, he began to act out of character more frequently—until he eventually became a new person whose life looked significantly different from his old life. His old routines were replaced by things that had once held no interest for him.

One day, I compiled a list with two columns—Old Jim and New Jim—to show him how he had changed. He looked at the sheet of paper and agreed he did not do things he had once done but could not seem to understand why it was an issue. It was as if his brain could not process the information.

And he refused to see a doctor.

By 2006, Old Jim was pretty much gone, and I was left with New Jim. And although the loss was real, I did not know how to grieve it.

Five years later, Jim was diagnosed with glioblastoma—brain cancer.

I described Old Jim and New Jim to the neurosurgeon and asked if this tumor could have caused the change. He explained that the glioblastoma had only been growing for three to four weeks. “But,” he added, “There is something in his right front lobe that is not glioblastoma and that could be a slow-growing tumor that has been there a long time.” He asked if there was a history of benign brain tumors in Jim’s family. In fact, Jim had an uncle who died from complications from benign brain tumor surgery.

I believe that every curse has a blessing. Glioblastoma was definitely a curse, but throughout Jim’s illness, we experienced many blessings. The greatest blessing, though, was that the treatments that were entirely ineffective on the glioblastoma somehow returned Jim’s brain to its pre-2002 condition. Old Jim came back!

I grieved Jim’s death, but have only recently begun to get in touch with those lost years, that time of unconventional grief.

grief-hope-blessing

Deep Desires

Red Tent Living

A few months ago, my Pastor gave me Reinhold Niebuhr’s version of the Serenity Prayer, and I have been praying it every day since. One line that continually catches my attention is, “…taking this world as it is, not as I would have it.”

Talking with a friend the other night, she was expressing her desire for a romantic relationship. She wants to be married, and she has wanted that for a long time. But marriage has not happened. Sometimes, long-held, unfulfilled desires can be the most challenging in terms of acceptance.

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God-trauma-vulnerability

Shaking off shame

Last year, I connected with Jake Owensby’s blog, Looking for God in Messy Places. My own sense of where I find God resonates with his writing, and now I am reading his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life. In both his blog and his book, Jake writes about traumatic events from his childhood, and I am amazed at his openness.

In a memoir I recently read, the author declares that she wishes she could write openly about the trauma of her childhood, but she is not there. Me neither.

God-trauma-vulnerability

I want to be there—that place where I can speak openly and honestly about traumatic things that happened to me, where I have moved past shame—but I am not.

Thirty years ago, I read John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, hoping it would lead me beyond shame. It gave me insight and understanding, but I was still bound by shame.

Then there was therapy for few years and a series of other therapeutic programs (retreats, family programs, al-anon, etc.). Each moved the needle a bit, but my shame is deep seated.

Shame is the yardstick by which I measure my freedom, because shame truly does keep me bound and unfree.

Looking back, though, I can see the distance I have come. There was a time when I did not even know what had happened to me. Like many children who experience trauma, I buried it deep inside and denied anything had happened.

All I knew for certain was that when I was eight years old, God saved me, that God had somehow picked me up and held me close. I had no understanding of the circumstances from which God was saving me. But I knew this one truth: God saved me.

In my twenties I realized that there was an impact from the damage that had been done to me as a child, because I could see how it was affecting the way I was living as an adult. Bad choices only begins to describe my twenties.

Chapter One in A Resurrection Shaped Life is called “Growing Beyond Our Past.”  Jake Owensby writes, “Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity” (Page 4). He notes, “We omit the messy parts of our lives” when building a resume, but that we have to “come to terms” with our past as part of a Christian spiritual practice.

I know my past helped me be more compassionate toward people who are vulnerable, especially children and people who have developmental disabilities. It also helped me know how blessed I am to have survived childhood trauma relatively intact.

Therapy, retreats, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, daily prayer and self-help books all helped me get to a place where I could make better choices and live with greater integrity.

I am still working with God in the messy places of my life, those places where I still hold onto shame—and trusting that God is continually healing me.

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