Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

compassion-God-love

Growing in love

Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:31

Whenever I encountered this Scripture passage, I used to think, “Poor neighbors,” what a low bar. Shouldn’t I love my neighbors at least a bit more than I love myself?

I didn’t love myself very much in my young life. I saw myself as lacking in most every way, never quite measuring up, more often messing up.

I might have re-written the passage to read, Love your neighbors as you want to be loved—or possibly Love yourself as you love your neighbors, because I can be much more accepting, compassionate and forgiving of others.

My capacity for self-love was definitely deficient.

Growing up, I knew that God loved me, and it was always a mystery why or how God could love someone I saw as so broken. It was probably my biggest Yes, but, as in “I know God loves me, but…” followed by my litany of deficiencies—all the reasons God must be wrong to love me.

Recently, one of my neighbors ripped out his front lawn. I don’t know why he did it—maybe it was dying or too weedy; maybe he just got tired of it or just did not like it and wanted something new and different.

I walked past his grassless front yard for a few weeks and then one day there was a beautiful new lawn—lush, green and weed-free. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could rip out what is undesirable in me and instantaneously replace it with something new and beautiful, completely erase whatever was old, worn or ugly?compassion-God-loveBut that is not how it has worked in my life. Years of therapy helped me to redefine myself more realistically. Years of prayer helped me to begin to see myself as God sees me.

I had to learn to set good boundaries and practice owning what is mine, figuring out what I believe and reinforcing that—and letting go of negative views. I wrote affirmations on little pieces of paper and taped them to my bathroom mirror, stuck them to my refrigerator with magnets and placed them in small picture frames. Reading these affirmations every day eventually began to push aside negative messages and replace them with God messages.compassion-God-loveI was restructuring the landscape of my inner self, but it was not as instantaneous as laying sod.

When I was in therapy in my thirties, I used to practice my boundary-setting out loud. When I recognized that I was regurgitating someone else’s negative belief (about myself or anything else), I would identify it. “So and so needs to say…” and then I would say, “But I want to say…” about whatever it was what I believed, or what belief I was growing into.compassion-God-loveGrowing in self-compassion has strengthened my boundaries and improved my self-esteem. To love myself as God loves me is my desire. Only then am I able to truly love others as I love myself—and as God loves them.compassion-God-love

 

God-blessing-hope-cancer

Everyday blessings

“…the works of God are to be declared and made known.” (Tobit 12:7)

Before Mass every Sunday, our Pastor declares, God is good, and the congregation responds, all the time. All the time, he says, and we affirm, God is good.

This ritual helps prepare me for worship, and I try to be present to these words and allow images of God’s goodness from the previous week to float into my consciousness. God’s goodness is something I can take for granted since it happens all the time. I need to remind myself that God’s goodness is not humdrum or tedious, but rather is a great gift that needs to be declared and made known.

But, how do I tell of God’s works in my life?

When I was clearing out my journals last week, I came across a Gratitude Journal—lists of things for which I was grateful, an accounting of God’s generosity to me in everyday life. No narrative—just the facts.God-blessing-hope-cancerBut writing things in a journal is not the same as declaring and making known. Journaling is a good thing to do—to remind myself of all the blessings I received in a day—but if it stops there, I feel like I am missing something. Declaring and making known imply telling others about the good works of God.God-blessing-hope-cancerLast fall, we had an intern from a local university at the cancer support center where I work. She told me that when the internship opportunities were posted, no one wanted the cancer support center. Cancer? Too difficult, too sad, too depressing. But this young woman was up for the challenge. She worked at a doctor’s office and had experience with people getting bad health news and making decisions about treatment and sometimes having to face the fact that treatment was not working.

“The other interns don’t know what they are missing,” she said one day. We were reflecting on the good things that happen at work every day.

Yes, there are difficulties and sadness and plenty of reasons for people to be depressed, but there are also many opportunities for joy, hope and gratitude as people accept and encourage one another.

Even through the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and the ugliness of treatment, God’s works are evident. Perhaps it is in the deepest suffering that God can do his best work.

This past week, a man brought his fiancée to a support group. He and I chatted while she was in the group. He told me that he was tired of hearing her say, “You don’t know what I am going through,” and he was happy to have found this place where she could be with others who do know what she is going through. His relief was palpable. After chatting for a while, he said, “I think I will move up our wedding date.” Now that is a sign of hope!

God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. Declare it.God-blessing-hope-cancer

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

spiritual-practice-Lent

Seeing as a spiritual practice

“You have sensitive eyes,” my eye doctor once told me.

He was referring to the fact that I came to see him whenever my vision changed—even the tiniest variation in my eyesight would send me in to get new lenses. He told me that most people lived with blurry vision for a while before coming in for a new set of glasses. But not me; I have sensitive eyes.

His observation came back to me after reading a comment on one of my blog posts about how I seemed to see deeper meaning in everyday objects, how I can look beyond the physical characteristics of something and make a spiritual connection.

For Lent, I am praying to see with sensitive eyes. I want to see with the eyes of my heart (Ephesians 1:18).

When I was in my twenties, I worked in an office with nine men; I was the only woman. My emotional state at the time was like a roller coaster. Which me would show up for work on any given day? Happy me? Angry me? Depressed me? Sad me? It was anyone’s guess.spiritual-practice-Lent

One day, when depressed me showed up for work, one of the men stopped in front of my desk, paused and then said, “Do you know that your moods affect the entire office?”

“What?” I asked, incredulously. I thought I lived in a bubble, that I was the only one affected by my volatile emotional state. I really did not know anyone else noticed.

“You are the first person we meet when we walk through that door, and when you are in a bad mood, it affects all of us,” he explained.

Oh, those poor men, I thought. They had been enduring my unpredictable mood swings. My roller-coaster ride must have been like a ride through a house of horror for them.

But, having been made aware, I decided to change. I would park my moodiness at the door and enter the office even-keeled. It took effort, but over time, I became much more stable.spiritual-practice-LentOne problem, though, was that some of the men had the image of the old me so firmly planted in their minds that they could not see the new me. They never really trusted that the old me would not reappear, so they never let their guard down long enough to get to know the new me.

It was a wonderful lesson about my own potential to grow and about allowing other people to grow—to expect the best in myself and in others, even if I am repeatedly disappointed.

That lesson has stayed with me, and I strive to be even-keeled. I also remind myself that I am not the same person I was yesterday—and neither is anyone else.

I want to be open to the people I meet every day and to look for the best in them. I want to practice seeing with sensitive eyes, with the eyes of my heart.spiritual-practice-Lent

 

meditation-God-generosity

Being amazed

As I read Chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel, the word amazed caught my attention (Mark 6:6), and I let my mind wander to times I have been amazed.

I usually think of amazement connected with beautiful things like sunrises or art or performances—delightful things that touch my heart—but in this passage, Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith.

I wondered how Jesus would react to my faith: would he be amazed at the strength of my faith or at the lack of it?

Then another scripture passage came to mind: Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was said about their son when he was presented in the Temple. (Luke 2:33) This is an amazement I can more easily relate to—something someone says that startles me, new information that shifts my perspective, a new insight. I can imagine Mary and Joseph thinking, “Is he talking about our son?”

Like the practice of noticing what I notice, being amazed can help me live in the present moment and appreciate the world around me.

Too often, I let things pass by without taking note or fully acknowledging the gift of God in them. Not just sunrises or art or performances, but also acts of kindness and compassion, words of encouragement or praise and good deeds done selflessly.

But, I am trying to be more aware, to pause and notice the goodness around me and to thank God for all the generosity I see.meditation-God-generosity

I work at a cancer support center where emotions can be like a roller-coaster ride. One person receives good news at the same time someone else receives bad news. One person’s treatment is successful and another’s is not. It can be difficult to take it all in and stay present.

Recently, one of our members brought in chocolates for our front desk, and a few days later, another brought flowers.meditation-God-generosity

Both of these women are in difficult situations, each facing surgery and each dealing with complications that create uncertainty for their futures. They are both in physical pain.

Yet, there they were bearing gifts. Their selflessness and generosity amazed me. Even in the midst of difficulty and uncertainty, they were magnanimous.

Their kindness and thoughtfulness touched me deeply and made me wonder if I would think of others if I were in a similar position. Would I be able to be so generous if I were facing difficult surgery? Or would my thoughts be focused on myself, my fears and vulnerability?meditation-God-generosity

I imagine that both of these women have been practicing generosity for a long time, so it is a part of who they are and how they live. They are generous without needing thanks or even acknowledgement. They do it for themselves, because they are following some internal impulse toward generosity. Amazing.

In the following days their acts of generosity, the most often-asked questions at work were, “Who brought in the chocolates?” and “Who brought in the flowers?” Others noticed. And appreciated. Simply amazing.meditation-God-generosity

 

 

 

retreat-meditation-mindfulness

Noticing what I notice

On the first day of my retreat last week, my director suggested that I spend some time noticing what I notice.

For much of that day I walked the grounds of the retreat center and practiced being present to what was in front of me. Little things caught my attention—the way a reed swayed in the gentle breeze; small shoots of green amid the dried-up, brown grasses; how ice formed along the edges of the creek; snow clinging to tree branches at odd angles; and the way three ducks huddled on the water with their heads tucked in for warmth (or maybe that is how they sleep?).

.retreat-mindful-meditationretreat-mindful-meditation retreat-mindful-meditation

The practice of noticing what I notice is a great way to slow down and focus. By the end of that first day, I had left my work and daily life behind me and had moved into a more meditative, prayerful space.

My friend Steve came to mind during one of my walks that first day. The previous week had marked the fourth anniversary of his death, and I welcomed this chance to spend time remembering what a blessing he was to me. Steve had been in a serious car/train crash when he was in college (he was in the car), and it was a miracle that he survived. He spent his life in deep appreciation that he was alive—and acute awareness that residual complications from the accident could claim his life at any time.

One gift of Steve’s accident was that he knew himself as totally dependent on God. His attitude toward life was open-handed—he was gentle with himself and others and did not take things too seriously.

I wondered which of my life experiences offers me that gift. What broken place within me reminds me of my total dependence on God? When had I been vulnerable and come out of the experience with a deeper appreciation for life?

One time I recall totally surrendering to God was after I left l’Arche. I had failed miserably as a l’Arche assistant, and my spirit was shattered. All my plans for spending the rest of my life in l’Arche were gone, and pride prevented me from returning to Philadelphia. My disappointment paralyzed me, and I could not see the way to rebuild my life.

In deep despair, I cried to my spiritual director, “I am falling apart!”

“No,” she said. “You are falling together.”

Her words jolted me. But I could see her point—I was already about as low as I could go; I had actually already fallen. My only hope was to give up the illusion that I was in control and surrender to God.

I recalled saying to God in resignation, “You hold all the cards!” It was both humbling and freeing.

As difficult as it was at the time, now it is a sweet memory that helped me connect with my friend Steve and God’s invitation to live more aware and open-handed, trusting in God.

grace-humility-vulnerability

Possibility

The cancer support center where I work has been growing rapidly, and so we recently moved to a larger building.

Prior to the move, I had measured a spot for a huge shelving unit; it would just fit. When I pointed out this spot to the mover, he said, “There is no way that piece will fit into that spot.”

“I measured,” I assured him, and showed him how I had walked off the space.

“You needed to really measure it,” he asserted. I would not give up my point and he called another mover over for his opinion.

“That big piece?” the second mover asked. “It’ll never fit in there.”

I was not in the room when they brought the shelving unit in, but later I saw that it fit perfectly.

A friend who was helping with the move told me she had advised the movers, “Don’t tell Madeline she was right or she will gloat.”

She was right; I gloated. She knows me so well—or I am that transparent. Either way, ugh. Not my finest moment.grace-humility-vulnerabilityOn my way home that evening, I heard a man on a radio show talking about his heritage. He had traced his family back to a southern city where there was a plantation owner with the same last name as his. His voice took on a confident tone as he suggested that he would be able to trace his DNA back to this slave-owner.

I don’t doubt the possibility or even probability that a plantation owner fathered children with his slaves, but it seemed to me this man needed for it to be true, and I wondered if he would accept any other outcome.grace-humility-vulnerabilityIt made me think of my needing to be right about the shelving unit fitting into the space.

What is it that makes me need to be right? And why do I take so much pleasure in someone’s admission that I am right?

When we were in our early thirties, a friend’s mother told us, “If there is something you don’t like about yourself, change it now, because it will only get worse as you get older.”

At the time, I thought about my negative traits, the things I wanted to change. If the need to be right was one of them, I did not do a very good job of changing it.

In the New Year, I pray for the grace to be less certain and more curious, to let go of my need to be right and be more humble.

I want to be curious—not convinced, knowing that certainty can cloud my judgment. I want to leave room for some other possibility that I had not even considered, some gift God desires to give me.

I remind myself that God is doing something new (Isaiah 43:19) but I need to make room for what God has planned, to be more open to possibility and to believe that the best is yet to come.