Category Archives: Faith Journey

Spiritual lessons

Walled cities

I am drawn to walled cities.

I first became aware of this attraction when I visited Krakow, Poland, thirteen years ago and stayed inside the walls. Even though the walls are no longer intact, a park surrounds the Old City and marks where the walls had once been. I felt safe being inside the Old City.

On my second visit to Krakow a year later, I stayed outside the walls. Every morning, I crossed over into the Old City, and something about being inside the walls felt secure to me.

A few years later, a friend visited Carcassone, a walled city in France, and sent me videos. As soon as I saw the videos, I knew I wanted to visit. It took a few years, but I went last spring, and I specifically chose to travel with Overseas Adventure Travels (O.A.T.) because they offered the opportunity to stay inside the walls of Carcassone.

The tour started further north, though, in Angers, another city with walls. Once again, I felt drawn to being within the walls. When we got to Carcassone, I felt completely at home within the walls.

Last month, I visited Avignon, another walled city, and I again found myself drawn to the inside.

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Avignon, France

And then last week, I visited Italy and spent a few days in Lucca, a walled city in Tuscany.

The walls around Lucca are intact and the top of the wall is a wide path where people walk, run or bike. I walked the path several times during my stay, enjoying the views of the Old City below.

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One of the gates into the walled city of Lucca, named after St. Donato
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Inside the gate, I came across this fireplace and painting.

Not only is Lucca surrounded by a wall, but beyond the walls are mountains, creating the impression of a double boundary.

What is it that draws me to these enclosed places?

Walking the path on the walls of Lucca one day, I pondered the mystery of my attraction to walled cities, and I thought about growing up in Detroit.

Detroit is anything but walled, but there were certain streets which I never crossed. I stayed within the confines of an area around my house, never venturing beyond Woodward Avenue or Eight Mile Road. Without being told to, I had created my own walls.

Awareness brings an invitation, and my awareness of being drawn to walled cities and of creating physical boundaries, makes me think about other walls I have built—not necessarily physical walls but any kind of boundary that gives me a sense of security.

I find myself asking if my walls are a matter of security or a limitation, and if I being invited to step out from beyond the walls and take a chance on what is on the other side.

Mother Teresa speaks to me

Mother Teresa has been speaking to me recently. Not directly, of course, but through a daily reflection book I have been reading this year, Do Something Beautiful for God.

Sometimes, they are pithy sayings like the entry for October 19:

Life is an adventure; dare it.

I, too, believe that life is an adventure, and I am doing my best to dare it, by taking risks, traveling, saying yes to opportunities. I am doing things I love and enjoying life. I wonder, though, if that is what Mother Teresa meant. Her life seemed totally devoted to service, so when she says adventure, what does she mean?

Last month, I participated in two opportunities to serve meals at two churches in the city, and I was reminded of the importance of direct contact with people who live closer to the edge than I do. Most of the volunteer work I do now is organizational (boards and committees), so cooking and serving meals felt like an invitation to return to the kind of service I used to do. A different kind of adventure.

Other times, Mother Teresa’s words seem to be inviting me to a movement in prayer. The entry for October 14: Every moment of prayer, especially before our Lord in the tabernacle, is a sure, positive gain. The time we spend each day sitting with God is the most precious part of the whole day.

This one spoke to me on several levels. First, I don’t tend to spend time before our Lord in the tabernacle, perhaps because it was not part of my religious upbringing and because I have to go someplace to find a tabernacle. I pray in the morning at home, but I know that when I have prayed in chapel (on retreat mostly), I have found it peaceful. When I read this reflection, I wondered why I don’t go to chapel more often.

That led me to reflect on my time in prayer every morning and if it is the most precious part of the whole day. I know that when I am on retreat, spending a whole week in silence and focused on God 24/7, my prayer seems to be deeper and more precious.  Perhaps the invitation is to be more attentive to God throughout the day—on retreat or not.

The entry for October 16: If you were to die today, what would others say about you? What was in you that was beautiful, that was Christlike, that helped others to pray better? Face yourself, with Jesus at our side, and do not be satisfied with just any answer. Go deep into the question. Examine your life.

When I left Pennsylvania nine years ago—after having lived there for twenty-eight years—friends had a going-away party for me and one after another, people said all kinds of wonderful things about me. My friend Ted said it was like being at my own wake, and I still smile when I recall that party. One thing that stood out to me was how many people thanked me for doing some small thing that I did not even remember doing—a kind word or some small favor that meant little to me but had a big impact on them.

That reminded me of Mother Teresa’s saying: Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

A week at the lake

Last week, I dog-sat for a sweet Brittany Spaniel named Dolly who lives at the lake. Two of my favorites–a dog and water.

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Gorgeous sunrises greeted me most every morning.

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Six swans (2 are behind the tree) swam by every morning.

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Some days, the water was calm; on other days, there were whitecaps.

Discovering my path

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way. I didn’t know how the “call” happened. I just knew that God had chosen me, and I could see that I was different from my brothers and friends in certain ways—mostly in my desire to spend time in church and to talk to God.

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I felt a closeness to Jesus, and I knew instinctively that he was with me. I thought of him as a brother who “got me,” who related to my vulnerability and my feelings of helplessness.

When he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I heard an echo of my own cry. Like me, Jesus was an innocent victim. And even though I felt chosen by God and closely connected to God, I still went through my life experiences on my own.

Knowing that God was with me was a comfort, but I understood that God was not going to take away the difficulties of my life. God was not going to make my dad stop drinking or make my mom protect me. God was not going to change my “bad-touch” uncle or prevent my being abused.

Yes, God was with me, Jesus was with me, and I was also on my own. It was a mystery.

Why God had chosen me was a mystery, too. Why me? A poor girl from the east side of Detroit who had no special talents or skills.

At one point, I thought I could escape to a convent, but I have a lousy singing voice and I thought being able to sing was a requirement of being a nun. (I did not go to Catholic school, so I had no first-hand experience with nuns.) I was stuck living the life I had, playing the hand I had been dealt.

I envied Jesus because he had a clear sense of his mission, of why God had sent him. Me? I had no sense of my mission.

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Finding the path I was meant to walk has been a life-long quest.

When I read St. Paul’s letters about our different gifts (Romans 12:6) I could hardly relate. What gifts did I have that could help build God’s kingdom? I wasn’t a teacher, a healer, a prophet or a preacher. What was my gift? Another mystery.

Now, here I am at seventy years old, looking back on the path I have walked. Over time, my gifts and talents revealed themselves through the events of everyday life. Over time, I have been able to let go of unrealistic expectations, the “shoulds” and “oughts,” and accepted what is.

I am now comfortable in my own skin and grateful for my life.

I recently completed an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality and hope to help others discern the path God is inviting them to walk, to help identify their gifts and to affirm that God can be found in all things.

Imagination in prayer

At Mass last Sunday, we heard the story of the Prodigal Son with intro parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin. (Luke 15:1-32) These stories introduce us to at least nine (9) characters:

  1. a shepherd whose one sheep has strayed
  2. a woman who lost a coin
  3. the friends and neighbors who rejoice when the sheep and coin are found
  4. a man who has two sons
  5. the older son
  6. the younger son
  7. the pig farmer who starved his workers
  8. the father’s servants and
  9. the older son’s friends

Nine different personalities inviting me to step into the stories and imagine myself in each role.

All week, I have engaged in imaginative prayer with the scenes in this Scripture, placing myself in each of the roles portrayed, letting the scene play out and looking at how I am like the person or how I am different.

For example, when am I put myself in the place of the shepherd, I wondered if I would be willing to leave what I have in search for something lost. It is a risk to leave the safety of the known, and I wondered if I would take the risk.

My opportunities to take risk don’t usually involve sheep, but as I let this image play out, I thought about the safety and security of my circle of friends, and I wondered if I am willing to take the risk of inviting someone into my circle of friends or even just to reach out to someone who seems to be on the outside. Do I tend to play it safe or am I willing to stretch beyond my comfort zone?

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The woman who searches for something precious that has been lost is an easy one for me to imagine because I frequently lose things (mostly earrings, which is why I had an extra hole pierced in one ear so I can still wear the remaining earring). I tend to tear the house apart and retrace my steps looking for a lost earring. But what about other things? Do I persevere or give up? Do I persevere in prayer? In hope?

How am I like the forgiving father? The rebellious son? Or the dutiful son? When am I like the servant who has to prepare something for others to enjoy while I just look on? Or like the local pig farmer who cares more for his pigs than the people who work for hm? How do I react when a friend complains about unfair treatment from a parent?

Each of the people in these stories help me to see myself in relation to God and to others. Each invites me to imagine myself inside the Scripture passage and learn something about myself, others and God.

On my walk one day, I realized that each person represents a different character trait, and it reminded me of the words stenciled at my neighborhood school—incoming messages through different avenues.

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Living excessively

My daily walk includes a path through a park along the shore of Lake Saint Clair, a lake so large I cannot see the opposite shore. The other day, the sky was overcast and the lake a dull gray, when, all of a sudden, the sun broke through the clouds, shining on the water, and the water shimmered. Where seconds before there had only been dullness, now the water sparkled, and I stopped to look.

Three words popped into my mind: Think BIG thoughts!

Vast is the sky overhead and the water at my feet, inviting me to be expansive, to live in the abundance that our God offers us. It was a mystical moment.

Our culture encourages people to think big thoughts about success, possessions, money—building financial portfolios, expanding business, growing wealth—all with an eye toward more money and bigger things—houses, cars, etc. Excessiveness is a word we tend to associate with wealth and the way wealthy people spend their money—mansions, yachts, elaborate vacations, expensive clothes.

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But what if we focused our big thoughts on building, expanding and growing love, forgiveness, acceptance and compassion. What if we were excessive with kindness, gratitude and mercy? What if we focused our wants on others instead of ourselves? What if we thought big thoughts about goodness, curiosity and generosity? Pie in the sky? Perhaps.

As I walked home from the lake that day, I passed the elementary school near my house and noticed words stenciled on the sidewalk. The school district has a character-building program focused on developing positive habits in the children and more than a dozen sidewalk blocks had words on them.

I remembered back to the beginning of the pandemic when children wrote messages of hope in sidewalk chalk.

We all need daily reminders to develop positive character traits.

What does all this mean for me? What BIG thoughts am I meant to be thinking? What positive character traits am I meant to be developing? What can I do that will help spread the message of Jesus to love, forgive, accept, hope, trust, persevere?

We are only as sick as our secrets

Secrets have been on my mind for the past year, ever since my mother revealed a secret she had been keeping for almost fifty years—which sparked my own awareness of a secret I had been keeping even longer.

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Since then, I seem to be very aware of others’ secrets and how often people shade the truth or tell half-truths to frame things in a different light.

For example, I recently attended a talk about Etty Hillesum, a woman who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. The speaker talked of Etty’s affair with her professor but failed to mention that Etty had had an abortion. I wondered why. Etty wrote about the abortion; it was not a secret, yet this person recalling Etty’s life left out this detail.

Was she trying to protect Etty by not talking about the abortion? Did she have feelings of shame around abortion that led her to omit it? This presentation was at a Catholic retreat center, and I wondered if the setting and the audience prompted this omission. But why did she include the details of the affair? It was all a mystery to me.  

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Secrets abound in the British detective tv shows I watch. Often, some secret is being kept which is key to solving the mystery.  “Why didn’t you tell us?” the detective asks in exasperation when the secret finally comes out. The detective doesn’t care that the grandfather had a child with the maid or that the mother had a wild past or that the children have squandered their inheritance. The detective just wants the facts and not an edited version of history.

It seems that we can be our own worst judges when it comes to our secrets, believing that the worst will happen if our secrets are revealed.

The truth is that we are the same people we were before our secrets were revealed, and those who love us will continue to love us once they know our secrets.

People may be surprised or even shocked to learn of some traumatic event in our past. They may have to adjust their image of us. They may review the relationship in light of new information, but if they really love us, they will get over their shock and adjust their image. They will remember that we are the same person we were before they knew our secrets.

I have always been open about being a rape survivor, but not everyone in my life knows about it, mostly because it does not come up in everyday conversation and because I have moved around a lot. The “getting to know you” phase of new friendships don’t usually include talk of rape or other traumas, so while my history is not a secret for me, it usually doesn’t come up until a relationship is established.

My goal is to have nothing to fear, nothing to prove and nothing to hide. I desire to live transparently, holding nothing back and keeping no secrets.

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Feeling blessed

I had another dog-sitting gig this week, with a sweet Brittany Spaniel pup who happens to live on a lake, so it was like being on vacation. Just before coming to the lake, my sister brought me a box of chocolates from Paris, and so I enjoyed them while watching the dog play by the water. Life is good.

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Looking out the window onto the lake.

All week, I felt incredibly blessed. It seemed that one good thing after another kept coming my way. I finished my Internship in Ignatian Spirituality, a two-year program with quite rigorous requirements; got invited to speak at a fundraising dinner for a local non-profit; was asked to consult on a project; the last of my home-improvements projects was completed; and I got to share the lake view with several friends who came to visit. A very good week.

At the same time, a cough has settled in my chest, and I can’t seem to shake it. It worries me because I am someone who rarely gets sick—and when I do, I usually respond to medicine. Not this time, though.

I am doing what I can about the cough, following doctor’s orders (getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, taking my medicine) and, at the same time, trying to focus more on the good things happening in my life.

Balancing life’s challenges with life’s blessings is a work we are all called to.

Being grateful for the good in my life and putting more energy into the positives helps tip the scales toward the blessings. I can’t ignore the challenges, but I can keep them in perspective.

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And I can remember that most growth comes from challenges. I am where I am because of the struggles I have gone through.

After a particularly difficult time in my life, I came to believe that God holds all the cards, and my job is to play the hand I am dealt. Sometimes that hand is a winner, and other times I just want to throw in the cards and ask for a re-deal.

God invites me to stick with it, even when my cards are lousy, to keep looking for glimmers of hope and to remember that God is with me through it all.