Category Archives: Faith Journey

Spiritual lessons

gratitude-God-Examen

Living in gratitude

A friend posted this message on social media.gratitude-God-ExamenWhat if?

The question gave me pause, and I realized my life would be poorer by far. It is not that I am ungrateful; I am grateful. But do I express my gratitude every day? Especially to God? How often do I spend time just thanking God for all the good in my life?

When Jim was sick, I created a litany of gratitude, and every day I added to it. Nothing was too small to be included in my litany—a smile from a stranger, sunshine, the funny antics of the dog.

There were bigger things on the list, too— our faith, Jim’s excellent health insurance, living near a hospital with a cancer center and the generosity of friends and family.

I read the list to Jim every day, too, to remind him of all our blessings.

In those first days and weeks, when it felt that fear and anxiety might overwhelm me, I consciously sought blessings—something, anything, for which I could be grateful.

Jim’s death was imminent and God’s generosity was abundant. Those two realities co-existed.

I would often tell Jim about the day he got sick, because it was the day I started my litany. He had no recollection of that day or any of the days he was in ICU, but I would regale him with tales of the wacky things people said and did, which had not seemed funny when they happened but took on a comedic hue in the re-telling. I was grateful I could laugh at what had caused me so much anguish.

I lived in gratitude even though I knew I was on the verge of losing something precious—or perhaps because I was on the verge of losing something precious. Remembering my blessings helped me focus on God and gave me hope.

How could I not trust God when so many blessings were being poured out on me?

My awareness of God’s generosity was probably more acute during Jim’s illness than at any other time in my life.gratitude-God-ExamenAnd then Jim died, and I grieved. I got out of the habit of adding to my litany of gratitude and out of the habit of reciting it.

My litany of gratitude came back to me last weekend when I facilitated a Day of Reflection for a volunteer group. They are at the beginning of their year of service, and I wanted to offer them some tools to help them navigate the ups and downs of service and community living.

I shared with them my own volunteer experience in l’Arche and what I learned about expectations and letting go—two subjects that continue to pop up in my life. I encouraged them to pray the Examen, an Ignatian prayer that helps keep us moving in the direction of God and gratitude.

God continues to pour abundant blessings on me, and I want to be more mindful of thanking God every day for my blessings
gratitude-God-Examen

 

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God-trust-vulnerability

Travel light

Take nothing for the journey. Luke 9:3

This is the instruction Jesus gives his apostles as he sends them to preach the Kingdom of God, and it is what he tells us, too.

Take nothing for the journey.

Just thinking of beginning a trip with nothing—no money, no clothes, no food—causes me a bit of anxiety. Not even my driver’s license? Or cell phone?

Even when I go out for a short walk, I take a house key. But I can see how the house key connects me to what I have left behind and binds me to my house.

If I did not have my key, my house would be unlocked and I would worry about what I might find when I returned home. It would not be a very relaxing walk because I would constantly be worrying about what I had left and what I might find on my return home. Past and future, instead of being open to the present.

When I lived in l’Arche, two Jesuit seminarians lived with us for a few months. After l’Arche, their next step in formation was to make the kind of journey Jesus commands. They would be dropped off in Cleveland, Ohio, and would have to make their way home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin—with nothing for the journey.

They would have to rely on the generosity of strangers.

Both of these young men were a bit anxious about this upcoming adventure, which I could certainly understand.

Most people came to l’Arche with very little—a suitcase or backpack with clothes and maybe a few books—but I came with my car, and it was fully packed.

I had gotten rid of furniture and most of my books, but I just could not part with so many of my possessions. Pottery, cookbooks and gifts that held special significance got packed into the car. Even my sewing machine accompanied me to l’Arche. I did not travel light.

Living in l’Arche helped disencumber me, though—not necessarily of my material possessions, but rather of the emotional baggage that caused me to cling to material possessions. My overstuffed car was the symbol of how much emotional baggage I was dragging behind me and helped me understand how all that stuff held me back. It was as if I was pulling two-thousand pounds of emotional baggage along with me.

And that is another way to read Jesus’ instructions to take nothing for the journey. Jesus invites me to depend on him and to be free of unhealthy relationships and emotional dependence on others.

That kind of freedom is both attractive and somewhat scary. I find comfort in what is familiar—even if it is unhealthy—and stepping away from the familiar can be unsettling.

Every day, God invites me to take the first step of the journey of proclaiming God’s Kingdom, to leave everything behind and trust that God will provide for my needs—just like the first disciples and the Jesuit seminarians.

God-trust-vulnerability

God-resistance-vulnerability

Just write

“You are a reluctant prophet,” the retreat director said during our first meeting.

“I have heard that before,” I replied.

Months earlier, after reading his book Simply Soul Stirring—Writing as a Meditative Practice, I had written to Father Dorff and asked if he would help me with my writing. I had explained that God was inviting me to write, and that I was resistant. But now, I wanted to move against my resistance.

He agreed to a seven-day writing retreat. I flew to New Mexico, prepared to spend a week in a hermitage, writing.God-resistance-vulnerabilityAfter talking with me for a short time in that first session, Father Dorff said, “No more books on writing or workshops or retreats. Just write.”

That was seven years ago.

Many of my retreats before that one dealt with my writing—or not writing. I had consistently heard the invitation to write, but I had resisted.

In my early twenties, people started suggesting I should write a book.

I think it was because I worked for the FBI, and I seemed an unlikely FBI employee. I was willful, obstinate and outspoken—not exactly bureaucrat material. Plus, I had strong beliefs about social justice.

After the FBI, people suggested I write about my work with people who were socially marginalized, and then l’Arche.

But I did not ever see any of that as book worthy.

It wasn’t until my late fifties that I actually submitted an essay that was published (or rather podcast). And then I submitted another to the local newspaper for the opinion page. My two published pieces.

And I started this blog.

I don’t know what it is about writing a book, but I know I am resistant.

Moving against my resistance has been a major part of my spiritual life for as long as I have had a spiritual life. God continually invites me to move past rigid rules and self-esteem issues.

I just don’t see myself as an author, even if God and other people may.

So what, I wonder, would I have to say that could fill a book?God-resistance-vulnerability

Still, I want to move against my resistance, especially my resistance to sharing my story.

Last year, I heard about an author who conducts memoir-writing workshops, and I thought maybe I could attend one of her workshops. While checking out her calendar for the upcoming year, Father Dorff’s words come back to me. “No more…workshops. Just write.” Ugh!God-resistance-vulnerabilityMy week in New Mexico helped me to be more comfortable writing and sharing my story. Father Dorff received my story without judgment. He accepted my vulnerability and encouraged me to continue to be open to where God was leading me.

Father Dorff suggested that I allow God to direct not only what I write but also who reads it. He encouraged me to let go of controlling the process and let God be the director.

So, for now, I continue to blog and try to be more open to next steps.

 

God-mindfulness-meditation

Lessons from meditation

The Deacon at Mass last weekend preached on Mark 7:31-37, seeing and hearing, and Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) popped into my mind. Upon reflection, I realized his homily made me think of mindfulness and how often I don’t take in what someone is saying to me, how often I am really not listening attentively.

Julian came to mind because I see her as being a model for mindfulness.

One night, while asleep, she had fifteen visions or revelations, and she spent the rest of her life living in a cell attached to a church, reflecting on these visions and writing what God revealed to her (Revelations of Divine Love). She models for me how to pay attention, to pray, to reflect and to be open to hear and see.God-mindfulness-meditationBy spending time with the words and images of her visions or dreams, Julian was able to hear and see deeper meanings. She remained open to insights, and God did not disappoint.God-mindfulness-meditationI spend time every morning in prayer and meditation, which often produces intriguing thoughts and images that I wish I could spend more time exploring for any deeper meaning and insight, but that luxury of unlimited time only happens when I am on retreat.

It is one of the things I love about retreats—all the time in the world to stay with one phrase or word or image, taking the time to notice what I notice and then allowing images to surface. Julian’s life was like that—one long retreat.

I envy Julian her life of solitude in the church tower. All day, every day to ponder God’s love.

That kind of dedication to God produced Julian’s ability to see the whole world, all of creation in something as small as a hazelnut.God-mindfulness-meditation

I sometimes wonder what rich insights I could have if I dedicated more time to reflection. Would I be able to draw conclusions as Julian did? To trust God’s love for His creation and to know that all will be well? God-mindfulness-meditation

trust-God-vulnerability

Building trust

A recent Sunday sermon was accompanied by a power point presentation, which included this slide:trust-God-vulnerabilityThat’s me! I thought. Building trust is my construction project, and like many construction projects, this one has been going on for a long time.

As I reflected on this metaphor, I realized that I may have omitted an important first step of many construction projects—demolition. Often something needs to be torn down before new construction can begin.

I am one of those people who tends to favor restoration over demolition. I don’t believe that everything new is better than everything old. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer old homes and historic buildings to new construction.

When talk turns to tearing down buildings, I have difficulty imagining the space without what has always been there. Even though a building may be decrepit and no longer serve any purpose, letting go of it can challenge me.

But sometimes, restoration isn’t possible and the only way to make room for something new is to completely remove what had been before.trust-God-vulnerabilityLast year, the nonprofit organization where I work moved into an elementary school building that had been vacant for five years. Seven other nonprofits joined us, converting the building into a nonprofit hub. It is a wonderful repurposing of a building that had outlived its usefulness as a school.

But, there are issues. During the years when the building was closed, minor repair projects went unnoticed, and it seems every week we discover something that needs attention.

My trust-construction project is like that—neglected and ignored areas need attention.

In the same way that I prefer restoration and repurposing to demolishing buildings, I resist the deconstruction that needs to happen in order to make room for my trust-construction project to move ahead. I give energy to the negative thoughts that swirl in my head, allowing them to get in the way of my progress. I return, again and again, to what shattered trust in the first place, not wanting to accept the truth of my history and making excuses for those who betrayed me.trust-God-vulnerability

Every Sunday at Mass, though, I get a reminder of true trust in action. The words of the Eucharistic Prayer remind me that on the very night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks. Jesus’ trust was intact, absolute and unwavering. What a gift! What an invitation!

I have experienced the kind of trust Jesus exemplifies, times when I have been able to forgive in the face of betrayal, when I have been able to let go and to trust again. However, those moments have not usually happened quite so quickly.

God invites me, again and again, to accept my past, to forgive and to move on to the future God envisions for me, a future built on trust.

And every time I am able to follow Jesus’ example of letting go of betrayal and trusting in God’s unconditional love, I move closer to the completion of my trust construction project.

 

 

vulnerability-God-healing

Turning loss into gain

vulnerability-God-healingMy young life was chaotic, to put it politely. I survived it, though, by creating a shield around myself. I was a living papier-mache project, and each chaotic event added a layer to my armor until my coat was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.

All along, though, God kept trying to break through my protective shield, kept trying to prevent me from walling myself in. But I was resistant. Closing myself in felt safe; opening myself up created anxiety.

During my twenties and early thirties, I came to understand the disconnect between my tough exterior and fragile interior. Good manipulators saw my weakness and took advantage; what felt to me like a true connection and perhaps even love was really exploitation.

My coat of armor was not really protecting me from further harm; it was just keeping out the healing love of God.

Through all those years, though, God did not give up on me.

In my twenties, I kept getting invitations to attend retreats and workshops where I would hear about God’s desire to love and heal me. I collected buttons with slogans like “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “God don’t make junk.”

I memorized Scripture verses that reminded me of Jesus’ desire to love and heal me. I commiserated with St. Paul and the thorn in his side. My past was always with me, a thorn in my side reminding me of my shame.

Mary Magdalene became my soul sister—if Jesus could drive seven demons from her and she could come to know herself as loveable, surely he could do the same for me. I was desperate to escape the self-loathing I felt, that certainty that I was damaged goods and good for nothing.

But after a childhood spent creating a thick protective shell, breaking it down was neither easy nor quick. Messages on buttons could not effectively undo my deeply-held belief that I was broken, unfixable and unlovable.

Over time, though, Jesus was able to break through my defenses. As a child, I had seen Jesus as another innocent victim. Every Palm Sunday, I cried out with him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Poor Jesus; poor me.

At some point, though, the connection clicked—Jesus was an innocent victim, and he did understand my brokenness. I realized that what I had told myself was self-protection was really fear—fear of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear that what had happened to me in the past could happen again.

I came to see that unless I peeled off those layers of protective armor and touched my brokenness, I was just setting myself up to be re-victimized. I also saw that what I considered thorns were actually invitations to growth.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Prayer to Redeem Lost Time rings true for me:

While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that you, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.

With God, nothing is lost; everything is possible.vulnerability-God-healing

God-resistance-vulnerability

Resistance

About fifteen years ago, I got a bike as a Christmas gift. It is an expensive bike, with twenty-four speeds! It is not what I would have chosen—I would have picked one of those no-gear granny bikes with a wicker basket on front. I don’t even need hand-brakes. But this is the bike I got and still have.

I have thought of giving it away or selling it and buying a less-complicated bike, but I haven’t.

While riding last night, it occurred to me that I am resistant to this bike. I have not embraced it, appreciated it for the gift it is. Why is that? I wondered.

Resistance is a funny thing. Sometimes it can be so obvious, but other times it can be subtle.

My first spiritual director often made suggestions that she thought would be helpful. She suggested I pray for fifteen minutes at the same time every day, and she sometimes suggested books. I usually said, “No, thanks,” or said nothing and didn’t do what she suggested.

One of her book recommendations was An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum.

A year or so later, a women in my book club proposed this book. The title sounded vaguely familiar, but like most things I resist, I had blocked it from my mind and did not recall that this was the book my spiritual director had recommended.

The book was transformational (and I highly recommend it). At some point, though, I remembered that this was the same book that I had refused to read.

Why had I been resistant to this book? Why am I resistant to nonfiction in general? Am I afraid I will be invited to change?God-resistance-vulnerability“Stubbornness is not a virtue,” my current spiritual director recently told me. I didn’t think it was, even though I often act as if it is.

Stubborn is just another word for resistance. There are others: obstinate, pig-headed, inflexible….None of which I want to be.

But, there I was last night, riding my bike, when it occurred to me that I am resistant to this gift. This resistance is much more subtle; it has taken me fifteen years to even see it!

I think the bike says something about me which is not true. I think the bike says, I am a serious bike rider, which I am not. The most I ever ride is five miles, and at a leisurely pace. When people invite me to go for bike rides, I decline. I fear I could not keep up and that I would be a burden.

And there it is—fear of disappointing.

How much of my resistance is connected to my fear of disappointing or fear of failure?God-resistance-vulnerabilityGod invites me to move against my resistance—to welcome, accept and embrace what is offered. To look at the world through eyes of awe, wonder and amazement. God invites me to say yes to all that life offers. Accept the bike, I told myself. Embrace the bike.