Category Archives: Faith Journey

Spiritual lessons

Waiting

“How is retirement so far?” my older brother recently asked.

“Every day feels like Saturday,” I replied.

“That’s retirement,” he said.

Saturdays have always been my “catch-up” days—grocery shopping, cleaning, running errands, etc. All those things I did not get to during the week were seen to on Saturdays.

With no work and no “mom duty,” my calendar is clear, and I have loads of time to spread out my shopping, housework and errands throughout the week.

Last weekend, I attended a (virtual) retreat for people in transition, and the question that snagged my attention comes from 1 Kings 19:13, when the Lord asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?”

It took me back to when I worked for an adult literacy council and often spoke to community groups about our work. I usually asked an adult learner to accompany me and share how we had helped.

One of the adult learners spoke of the challenges of learning English. She would say that the two questions, “How are you?” and “How are you doing?” confused her because she thought she was being asked two different questions. The word “doing” threw her.

I thought the same as I listened to the question to Elijah. What was he doing there? He wasn’t doing anything, really, just standing outside waiting for God to come by.

It occurred to me that different questions might have been, “Why are you here?” or “What are you looking for?” or “What do you want?”

Now that I am no longer working and no longer caring for my mom—two things I used to do—I am asking myself, “What am I doing here?” and is it ok to do nothing, to just stand outside and wait for God to pass by?

God-mindfulness-vulnerability

The best is yet to come

My life has been turned a bit upside down recently by my mother’s death and my leaving the job I have had for the past seven years. Two big losses at the same time and lots of empty space in front of me.

No more dinners with my mother or shopping for her or calling or stopping by to check in.

And no more work emails or office to go to or meetings to attend.

I have to admit that it is a bit scary to stand in front of this vast empty canvas without the commitments that have structured my life for the past years. And yet…

God-vulnerability-transition

I have decided to view the coming year as a sabbatical, a time to pause after thirty-five years of working in nonprofit management, to reflect on and say goodbye to what has been, and to prepare for what is to come.

Almost as soon as I made that decision, two retreat opportunities presented themselves—one is focused on discernment for people in transition and the other is for writers. I had not been looking for either one, but both seem opportune, and I signed up for them. One is virtual, and the other is in Texas—my first flight since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

As a child, I had no idea what I might be when I grew up—no passionate hopes or dreams to be this or that. As an adult, I tended to fall into jobs more than selecting them with a goal in mind.

So here I am in the third third of my life, still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. Only now, I have lots of experience and a pretty good idea of my gifts and talents.

And that knowledge and awareness energizes me—standing on the precipice of the next chapter in my life is thrilling.

My friend Jim used to say, “The best is yet to come.” I am in total agreement, and I am looking forward to what the next chapter of my life holds.

God-vulnerability-transition

On retreat–I had hoped

On the sixth day of my retreat, my spiritual director suggested I pray with Luke 24:13-35, the Road to Emmaus. The story is that two disciples are walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem after the crucifixion. They are sad and disappointed.

Then Jesus is walking along with them, but they don’t recognize him. He asks what they are talking about, and they relate what has happened in Jerusalem and what happened to Jesus. “We had hoped…” (Luke 24:21) they said.

Those three words jumped off the page at me, and I repeated them a few times. “We had hoped.” Then I personalized it to, “I had hoped.”

What had I hoped?

I had hoped…

  • To be loved, cherished, valued and respected;
  • To stop the negative messages in my head;
  • To go to college after high school;
  • To visit Poland again;
  • To live in l’Arche for the rest of my life;
  • To reconcile with a friend from Winnipeg, and on and on.

It turns out I had a fair number of dashed hopes. Like the disciples who were feeling let down, I also had hoped and been disappointed.

After a few hours of creating a list of my unfulfilled hopes, I went back to my Bible and finished reading the Road to Emmaus story in Luke.

Jesus says to these two disciples, “How foolish you are and how slow to believe…” and then he explains what happened to him from a different perspective; he reframed the situation.

What Jesus says to these two disciples on the road to Emmaus is that their hopes and their vision were too narrow, too small. The resurrection was bigger than anything they could have imagined or hoped.

Jesus says the same thing to me, too—my vision is to narrow, my hopes are too small, and what I need to do is broaden my vision, to get a different perspective. I need to think big thoughts, to focus on God’s abundance and to remember all the good things that have happened to me.

I thought back to the litany of blessings I had done a few days earlier and how I call myself “the luckiest girl in the world.” It is true that I have had unrealized hopes and dreams; it is also true that I have had opportunities beyond my wildest hopes or dreams.

God’s vision for me is much bigger than I could ever hope or imagine.

On retreat–the bear got poked

Some years, my week-long silent retreats are days of rest, prayer, meditative walks and feeling God’s presence. Other years, some old wound in need of healing is revealed. This year’s retreat was the latter.

On the fourth night, I attended a Healing Service. The presider talked about the difference between being cured (disease is gone) and healed (disease is still there but attitude toward the disease is transformed).

He talked about holding grudges and how doing so is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

None of this was new to me.

Then he shared a story from his university days in Europe, and I felt resentful. “Lucky you,” I thought, and then I remembered that I had gone to Spain when I was in college. Why would I resent his time in Europe? It made no sense.

That night, I had a dream—one I had had before—about not knowing my place, about overstepping my bounds.

“The bear got poked,” I told my spiritual director.

I told her how I noticed my resentment during the healing service and how it had surprised me. And then I started to cry. Tears from some deep place, pouring out as if a scab had been ripped away from a wound.

I try to pay attention to when I am angry, and I try not to hold grudges. So how had I not noticed that my snide comments and eye-rolls were a sign of resentment or envy?

My director talked about how grudges can come from old hurts that seemingly have nothing to do with the current situation. She suggested I reflect on hurtful events from my past and try to get some distance from my emotional entanglements to them.

That night, I saw three deer walking along the edge of the woods. Deer are a sign for me of God’s presence, and in that moment, I felt comforted in the reminder that God is with me on this journey.

The next day, I walked to the wetlands and just as I was about to sit down on the dock, I noticed two deer about twenty feet away, partially hidden by the brown reeds. They looked at me but did not run. I sat down and watched them. 

After a few minutes, they disappeared into the woods.

I remembered my walk through the woods my first day of retreat and how the undergrowth made the woods seem impenetrable. Yet the deer we able to enter.

I took a walk through the woods and felt that God was inviting me to look again at the undergrowth, but with a softened gaze so I could see beyond what appeared to be a mess—like those optical illusions that require soft eyes to see the hidden picture.  

With soft eyes, I can see that the deer are hiding in plain sight.

With soft eyes, I can see that God, too, is right in front of me, desiring to heal my wounds.

On retreat–pondering my blessings

The weather while I was on retreat was perfect for spending time outdoors, and the retreat center has beautiful grounds—grassy areas, a labyrinth, and trails through a wooded area.

retreat-prayer-God
The labyrinth at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House

I had not been on retreat here in two years and was startled by the number of fallen trees in the woods. The undergrowth was so dense I wondered how deer could make their way through, and then I wondered what undergrowth might be preventing me from moving forward. What is tripping me up?

Time on silent retreats is different from daily life in that there is nowhere to go and not much to do. A schedule develops around meals, Mass, meeting with a spiritual director once a day, and prayer times.

Retreat time allows for being able to stay with one image, idea, word or phrase for a whole day—or two or three; there is no need to move on. Rather retreats invite and encourage dwelling with words and images, letting the richness surface, and then going deeper.

On the third day of retreat, I woke up with the words of the Magnificat running through my mind, and I wrote this prayer in my journal, noting which words or phrases created some reaction in me. I prayed the words as though they were my own, as though I was the one offering up this prayer from my life experience, as Mary once offered it when she was visiting her cousin Elizabeth.

On one of my walks, I stopped by a statue of Mary and sat on the bench facing Mary. I played out the scene of Mary visiting Elizabeth and heard Elizabeth ask, “Who am I…?”

retreat-prayer-God
Statue of Mary at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House

Who am I? I asked, that I have been so blessed. I thought of how many times I have said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world,” because of all the wonderful opportunities I have had.

A litany of blessings started coming to mind, those experiences that were seemingly beyond the scope of possibility for a poor girl from the east side of Detroit.

For example, I was one of five people on a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, when the Basilica was closed (the Basilica closes when the Pope celebrates Mass on the Square).

I was one of three people on retreat in a cottage on the coast of the Irish Sea.

I was the only person on retreat in a hermitage on the grounds of a monastery in the desert, being directed by priest who has published books about spiritual writing.

I was one of three people on a night safari in Kruger Park in South Africa, which included a barbeque in the bush, complete with cloth napkins and candlelight (and armed guards watching out for lions).

I was one of eleven people on the shores of the Hudson Bay, 150 miles south of Churchill, Manitoba, watching polar bears migrate.

The list goes on and on.

Who am I that God has so richly blessed me?

On retreat–staying with the questions

Staying with the question

During the opening session of my week-long silent retreat, we were presented with the invitation to stay with the questions in our lives rather than rushing to find answers. Rainer Maria Rilke was quoted.

Retreat-prayer-spirituality

The next day I reflected on my questions, those unanswered mysteries that keep resurfacing and whirling around in my head.

Why me? is the question I have asked countless times over the course of my life. Why did God choose me at the age of eight? What did God expect from me? I was the least likely candidate to do anything great for God; I was a child in a working-class home with few resources and no influence. Why me?

In my twenties, I went on a Cursillo retreat and learned the slogan, God don’t make junk. I even got a button to wear with that quote. God may not make junk, I remember thinking, but God makes mistakes—and choosing me seemed to be one of them, because I could not see how I could serve God in any meaningful way.

On day two of my retreat, as I walked along a riverbank pondering my why question, my cousin Marlene came to mind. When she was being treated for pancreatic cancer, she told me that she had gotten to know some of the people who were on the same chemo schedule, and as they sat for hours getting infusions they would chat about cancer and how unfair it was. Why me? was the question people kept asking. My cousin said she had come to see that was the wrong question. Why not me? she asked.

Maybe that was true for my God question as well. Instead of asking why me? maybe the question I need to ask is why not me?

I started to think of other people God had called who might make me wonder about God’s decision-making abilities, people like Dorothy Day, who as a young adult led a somewhat non-conformist life. Or Frances Cabrini, who was considered by some people to be too frail to become a teaching sister. Or St. Augustine, who lived quite a hedonistic life until his conversion. Or scads of other people who seemed too inconsequential or too frail or who were on the highway to hell and then, bam, God called.

Lots of people who seemed unlikely vessels for God’s message turned out to be exactly what God needed.

Who knows, maybe I am one of them. Why not me?

Trust

Do not let your hearts be troubled. (John 14:1)

These words jumped off the page of my daily Scripture reading and prompted the question, what is troubling my heart?

Top of the list is my mother, who is ninety-five and on hospice. She has a variety of health issues, and yet she continues to live as though there is nothing wrong with her—she still cooks, cleans and does her laundry. She both inspires me (by her determination and perseverance) and worries me (because I know that any day something could happen—a fall, her heart could fail, etc.).

If you have ever kept vigil for someone who is nearing death, you will perhaps understand the stress of watching and waiting.

I remind myself that my mother is in God’s hands, and I believe that. Yet I know I am still holding onto something, as evidenced by the stress I feel.

The next line in John’s Gospel is Trust in God; trust also in me.

I pray to be able to let go and trust that God has my mother—and remember that God has me, too. Trust is the key, and when I am worrying, I am not trusting.

Worry is another word for fear, and Luke 8:50 reminds me that fear is useless; what is needed is trust. Another invitation to trust!

There are other items on the list of things that trouble my heart—my own health, my work, money, etc. Then there are more global issues that also trouble my heart—poverty, injustice and all the negative isms.

I know that trusting God and letting go of my fears is the way to peace in my heart, which seems to be the work of a lifetime.

What helps me to let go of worry is being present to the moment and trying to stay in the present moment. I remind myself that I cannot do anything about what might happen at some future time—and worrying about it won’t change anything.

I try to do the things that help me be present to the moment—creative activities like gardening, baking, knitting, etc.

What troubles your heart? What brings you peace?

Overcoming resistance

Over a year ago, I stopped going to church—at first because churches were closed, and when they reopened, I was not comfortable going. I had realized early in the shut-down that those things that are most habitual pose the highest risk of forgetting we are in the midst of a pandemic. Church is a place of ritual and habit.

My church is one of those places where many people hug in greeting one another, and I wanted to avoid having to put my hands up in a “STOP” position. I have missed being hugged, but protecting my health is more important.

Once I received the vaccine, however, I decided to go to Mass.

The seats had been rearranged to ensure social distancing, and I felt very safe. Then came communion, and I happened to see a woman walking back to her seat touching the hands of people she passed—just as she used to do before the pandemic. It was habitual, and people responded as they did pre-pandemic.

I was immediately uncomfortable, and I have not gone back to church since.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when we thought it would only last a short time, I decided that I did not want to watch Mass on a screen. Something felt off about it, as if Mass were a play. I always think of Mass in terms of participation, so not only had I not gone to Mass, but I had also not watched it.

Then, on Easter Sunday, I decided to try watching Mass being livestreamed from my church. It was wonderful to see people again, and I appreciated “being” there.

During this Mass, I began to wonder why I had been so resistant to viewing Mass on a screen.

Resistance is familiar to me, and this incident with the livestream Mass seemed to open the floodgates of my awareness of things I have been resisting during the pandemic.

God-resistance-fear

I think fear of contracting coronavirus has sparked other fears, and the fears have just kept piling up. For example, I have not traveled, and the few times I have eaten in restaurants, I was too anxious to enjoy my meal. Even though I have gotten the vaccine, I am still hesitant to be around more than a few people at a time.

Last week, I was talking with a friend about retirement and said I was afraid I would not have enough money.

“I’ve never heard you talk like that,” she said. She is right; I never feared not having enough money. I live within my means and even though I don’t have a lot of money, I have always managed financially and been content with my financial situation.

I am going on retreat next month, and my spiritual director suggested I try not to anticipate what will happen. I do hope, though, that God will work with me on my fears and resistances. And I am joyfully anticipating going to Mass every day.

God-resistance-fear
ance

Claim your treasure

Every Monday, I look forward to an email in my inbox from Shola Richards with a message about positivity. Confronting fears was the theme of last Monday’s email, and the message spoke directly to me, especially the opening quote:

“Inside the cave you fear, lies the treasure you seek.”

God-trust-fear
tr

I have a fear of caves, so the very idea of stepping into the darkness of a cave made me shutter. But the idea that the treasure I seek is hidden within made sense to me.

“The only way past the pain is through the pain,” came to mind as I pondered entering a dark, fearful place like a cave.

What I fear won’t go away on its own; I need to confront it and move through it. I need to step into what seems ominous and threatening. The only way to find the treasure is to enter the cave.

I had an insight into this truth a few weeks ago. I was talking with someone about being a rape survivor, and I said the name of the man who raped me.

Two things happened almost immediately.

The first was that I had not realized that fear had me in its grip, but as soon as I said his name, the fear dissipated and was replaced with a sense of power. Instead of standing outside the cave, fearing the darkness, just saying his name sparked a light.

The second was something from the Harry Potter books. The main adversary in the series is an evil character commonly known as “He who must not be named.”  In that instant of speaking the name of the man who raped me, I realized how much power I had been giving him all these years just by protecting his name.

Why had I been protecting him? Why had I not spoken his name? As in the Harry Potter series, once Lord Voldemort is named, his power is diminished. Fear is replaced by freedom.

When I relayed these events to a friend, she quoted scripture, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:38).

Fear can be crippling. It can keep us stuck in darkness, giving up our power and limiting our potential.

Naming our fears can break the spell, and we can reclaim our power and our freedom.

I invite you to step inside the cave and claim your treasure.

Being healed

Do you want to be healed? Jesus asked the man sitting near the pool (John 5:5-15).

Reading that passage, I thought, “What kind of question is that?” Who doesn’t want to be healed?

Can you imagine someone asking you if you want to be healed and you would say, “Hmm, let me think about that.” Rather, I think most of us would answer without hesitation, “Yes, I want to be healed.”

So why does Jesus ask that question?

Perhaps because we may want to be healed in theory, but in reality, we get some benefit from being unhealed. Maybe it is sympathy for our suffering or a familiarity and comfort in our identity as one who suffers. Perhaps it is just that we don’t even know that we are holding onto something that needs healing, let alone how to let go and be healed.

The answer to Jesus’ question might often be a “Yes, but…”

Yes, I want to be healed, but I also want to hold onto some of the identity associated with what ails me, to stick with what feels comfortable.

Yes, I want to be healed, but I do not want let go of all of my anger, resentments and fears.

All kinds of things can cripple us or bind us—old hurts, low self-esteem, insecurity, grief—things we need to work on or through.

That work can be challenging, and the changes might not be evident for a long time. Not every healing happens the immediate way it did with Jesus.

God-forgiveness-healing

I have wounds that go way back to my childhood—and then additional wounds on top of those. Some are more traumatic than others, and some have been healed just as new hurts occurred. It seems to me that healing is the work of a lifetime.

Jesus desires that we be healed. He showed that many times throughout the Gospels, from healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Luke 4:38-41) to the paralyzed man lowered through the roof (Luke 5:17-20) to the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:25-29). He healed people of all ages and from different backgrounds. He brought Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-42) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44) back from the dead.

He wants us to be healed and live full lives. He wants us to leap up like the man healed by Peter in Acts 3 so that we, too, are “jumping and praising God.”

Oh such joy! Who wouldn’t want that?

Maybe Jesus would ask follow-up questions like, What is stopping you from receiving healing love? What is blocking the path to living more joyfully? What is one thing you can let go of that will make you freer to give and receive forgiveness?

God-forgiveness-healing

I have been thinking a lot lately about seeing people as God sees them, and I believe God sees each of us as our best self, and God’s desire is that we grow into that image, to become the person that God created us to be.