Category Archives: Faith Journey

Spiritual lessons

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

patience-faith-god

Patience and faith

The forsythia in my back yard had very few flowers the past three springs. I pruned it every spring since I moved here, hoping it would produce abundant blooms. A friend who knows about such things told me there are some varieties that flower less and suggested I consider getting a different variety. I was about to give up on my forsythia, and then it bloomed.faith-patience-GodBe patient, Madeline, I heard God saying.

A few weeks later, I was at a retreat center that has a labyrinth. During a workshop break, I visited the labyrinth and started to walk meditatively along the outer circle. At the first turn in the path, I stopped and looked at the stone in the middle. The brochure had said it was a symbol of Jacob meeting God. I pondered that for a bit and then I had an impulse to just walk to the middle, to skip the layers of circles and jump to the center.faith-patience-godThe words of Teilhard de Chardin came to me.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

 And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

 Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 Be patient, God again said to me.

Patience is a virtue that I can work on, and it seems God is inviting me to develop this virtue.patience-faith-godFaith, on the other hand, is a gift that is about desire and openness.

Taken together, patience and faith invite me to let go of my expectations and my rush-to-the-end attitude. They invite me to accept what is just the way it is, and to move against my tendency to want things to be other than they are.

Patience and faith invite me to lean into God and let God lead me, to accept what is with gratitude and even joy. Opening my hands to receive what God offers, waiting for the gift and holding it loosely enough that I don’t crush it—that is the stance of patience and faith.

Like the forsythia in my yard, I want to surprise the people who have tended to me by trusting God’s grace and becoming the person God intended.
faith-patience-God

God-Easter-hope

From death to life

Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) have long been my favorite time of the liturgical year.God-Easter-hopeI love hearing the Passion twice in one week and watching the pageantry of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil touches my heart and invites me to renewal in a unique way. The baptisms and confirmations of people choosing my faith as their own always strengthens my faith and makes me more hopeful.

Since 2002, Holy Week has the added significance of being the week my dad died. It was Monday of Holy Week (March 25 that year), and every Holy Week Monday is now a memorial day for me.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday in 2002, the hospice nurse called and said, “Your dad is ready to die, but your mother won’t let go. You have to come home.”  I explained that I was coming home for Easter and already had my ticket for Thursday. “No, you have to come now,” she insisted. So I changed my ticket and came home the next day, Palm Sunday.

Contemplating Jesus’ Passion and death that year, while my dad was also dying, brought new, deeper meaning to the mystery of death and resurrection.

Once my mother let go of my dad, once she truly said good-bye to him, he died within an hour. The nurse was right; he was ready.God-Easter-hopeThen five years, ago, my friend Jim died on Tuesday of Holy Week (April 3 that year), adding another memorial to an already meaningful time.

On Palm Sunday 2012, almost nine months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, we knew Jim was close to death. He ate his last meal that Sunday afternoon, spent the next day in bed, and died early Tuesday morning.

Their deaths, occurring during this holiest time of the year, has deepened my understanding of the Paschal mystery—how death is part of life and how new life can come from death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)God-Easter-hopeI ask myself what fruit has been produced by their deaths—and the deaths of others I have loved.

One fruit is my deep awareness of how fortunate I am to have loved and been loved. I know myself as blessed, even in the absence of those I love.

St. John Chrysostom said, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they once were. They are now whenever we are.”

It is true that my dad, Jim and all the other people I have lost are no longer present in physical form, but I carry them in my heart, and they are with me in a different way. I think of them often, and their lives and deaths help me to live each day in awareness of the fragility of life and in gratitude for all that is.
God-Easter-hope

 

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

heart-prayer-vulnerability

Still noticing what I notice

My annual retreats can have long-lasting effects, and some themes from this year’s retreat continue to affect me. One theme was to notice what I notice; another was my heart and how I over-protect it.

A few weeks ago, I was searching for images related to prayer when an image of a partially-covered heart caught my attention.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI kept coming back to this image, even though it was not what I had been seeking. But something in that heart was speaking to me, drawing me in. It was as if God was whispering to me, reveal your heart.

Perhaps God was using this image to remind me of the connection between my heart and prayer and how I need to be more vulnerable in prayer. Perhaps God was using this image as an invitation to open my heart to God and to the people I see every day.

I find my heart being stirred as I listen to the stories of people at the cancer support center where I work. Listening, I think, requires a soft heart, one that can hear without judgment, one that can hold pain and suffering alongside gratitude and hope.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI have come to believe that most people who come to our center want to be heard as much as anything else. They want to talk about their fears and anxieties and hopes. They want to be acknowledged and affirmed.

My role is to listen to what is being said and to listen even more deeply to what is not being said. I try to pause before I speak, and I am learning to ask more questions than to offer answers. I hear myself asking, “What do you think it means?” or saying, “Tell me more about that.” And then I listen.heart-prayer-vulnerabilitySometimes, things seem much clearer to me than they seem to be to the person sitting in front of me. A significant weight loss or a change in skin color can indicate something has changed, even though the person may be unaware or in denial. Is it my job to say what I notice? I wonder.

It is so much easier to see things in others than in myself; my blind spots keep my own truths hidden. But, I believe that God is clueing me into my blind spots by what I notice in others—and inviting me to reflect back on my own issues.

So, for example, when I am particularly aware of someone being critical or judgmental, I ask myself if that awareness is connected to my own tendencies to be critical or judgmental. When I notice someone being impatient, I check my own level of patience; the same goes for fear or anger or resentment or….

Noticing what I notice helps slow me down and pay attention what is in front of me—whether it is a word in scripture or an image on my computer or someone sharing their fears. God continues to invite me to slow down and notice.
heart-prayer-vulnerability

 

spirituality-prayer-lent

Change my heart

Recently, I have spoken about my work at a cancer support center to several Optimist Clubs, and every time I hear the Optimist Creed, this line stands out:

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

One of my Lenten plans was to see the people in front of me. Sometimes I don’t actually see the person standing in front of me, but rather I see a version of that person which is based on my past experiences with him or her, and I know that is not always accurate.

Instead, I want to try to see as God sees—to see the potential in each person, to see the best in each one. I want to be less critical and more hopeful about the people in my life.spirituality-prayer-lentUsually, though, I form an impression of someone when we meet. If someone is prickly, I tend to think, “This is a prickly person.” I can then find it difficult to change that initial impression, to let go of my expectations that someone will act in a particular way. I can easily devote attention and energy to the faults of others while conveniently overlooking my own. spirituality-prayer-lentI know, though, that when I get a glimpse of myself as God sees me, it is a better version of me. From God’s perspective, I am capable of being my best self—loving, forgiving, accepting and merciful. When others see the best in me, and let me know that, I am more likely to be that person (or at least be more aware when I am not). The ability of others to see the best in me helps me to grow into the person God created me to be.

God invites me to focus on improving myself, on fixing my own faults before I start looking at others.spirituality-prayer-lentWhen I am aware of my own flaws, I am less likely to be critical of others. When I remember that I grow and change, it is easier to believe that others also grow and change—and also easier to see their potential.

Practicing seeing as God sees also makes me more compassionate. Seeing the potential in others and allowing them the space to grow into their potential reminds me we are all on the path to discovering who God created us to be. Hoping that I and others can live up to the vision God has for us shifts my vision from pessimism to optimism; God’s vision is always hopeful and expansive.spirituality-prayer-lentEvery person who stands before me has the potential to become all that God intended. My desire is to accept the people who come into my life without criticism or judgment and to imagine them as their best selves, the selves God created them to be.

 

prayer-spirituality-God

A recipe for prayer

Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that—but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us, unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads to complacency, but needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.      ~St Teresa of Avila.

I learned to bake in Home Economics class in seventh grade and have loved baking ever since.

Recipes direct the steps of baking; having the right ingredients, measuring accurately and following the directions almost always results in a successful baked good.prayer-spirituality-GodI was reminded of baking at a recent session at church where the presenter gave us these guidelines for prayer:

Step 1. Listen to the Scripture passage being read aloud.

Step 2. Spend one minute in silence thinking about the scripture passage.

Step 3. Listen to the scripture passage being read again.

Step 4. Write down a question about the Scripture passage.

Step 5. Spend one minute in silence thinking about the question.

It sounded like a recipe for prayer. But, unlike baking, where the goal is a finished product, I think of prayer as a conversation between God and me—with less focus on the outcome.

Scripture and silence are important “ingredients” of prayer, but conversations tend to be less structured and can zig and zag in unexpected ways.

In prayer, I need to think less and be more aware of feelings, intuitions and images. I need to be open to God’s participation in the conversation.

Prayer is interactive and dynamic; it is more focused on God and God’s words than me and my words. For me, prayer is less concerned with setting a timer and more concerned with tuning in and paying attention.prayer-spirituality-GodPrayer is about being open to God, speaking honestly and listening attentively.

In another workshop, many years ago, I was taught these basic principles about prayer:

  1. In the realm of the Spirit, God does it; we don’t.
  2. God meets us just where we are.
  3. Prayer and the spiritual life are not work.
  4. Trust is the key that opens the door to let in God’s Spirit.

We need to trust God and trust our inner experience.

5. Our part is to respond to God’s initiative.

The Lenten Little Black Book offers these “Tips about prayer:”

  1. Don’t be afraid to “pray your feelings.” Let go of how you think you should feel and share with God your true feelings—anger, sadness, etc. God can handle it.
  2. It’s often hard to get started. You have to make time and shift gears for prayer, and that requires some extra push and discipline.
  3. Regular prayer can help a lot. As with most activities, setting a regular time—the same time every day—helps establish the habit.

God is waiting to have a conversation with us; we only have to show up and be open to hear God’s voice.prayer-spirituality-God