God-vulnerability-faith

Is the parade passing by?

A friend recently invited me to her community theater’s production of Hello Dolly.

I tend to avoid musicals—too unrealistic for me. All that singing and dancing in the midst of poverty and despair is not how I remember the poor people in the neighborhood where I grew up or in neighborhoods where I have lived since.

When I saw Les Miserables, I remember thinking that most of the people in the theater would probably be afraid to walk through my neighborhood, yet they seemed to enjoy watching this upbeat depiction of oppression and wretchedness.

I worry that portraying poverty and human misery so light-heartedly can assuage the guilt of those who have the power to make societal changes. (Look how happy those poor people are; singing and dancing their way through despair—why change anything?)

God-vulnerability-faith

But, to support my friend, I decided to move against my resistance and go see Hello Dolly.

This particular community theater is no-cut, so the cast was large and included people of all ages.

I quickly got caught up in the music, costumes and pageantry of the play. It was all quite cheerful, and I found myself smiling as I searched the faces of the cast for my friend.

At some point, though, I realized the story was about Dolly’s desire to move past grieving her husband’s death.

In one scene, Dolly says to her deceased husband, Let me go. It’s been long enough.

I, too, have sometimes felt chained to my past and have pleaded to be let go. I want to be set free and move ahead, but sometimes the link to the past is so strong that it seems inescapable.

And, it isn’t always a relationship that holds me back. Sometimes (and perhaps more often) it is an unhealthy or unrealistic belief about myself—my own lack of confidence—that can keep me trapped.God-vulnerability-faith

When Dolly sang, I’ve decided to join the human race again before the parade passes by, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Then Dolly admitted that no one else’s life is mixed up with mine, and I felt found out and exposed.

Through this upbeat, light-hearted musical, this play was speaking deep truths to my soul and inviting me to examine the current state of my life and just how free I am.

Am I open to mixing up my life with others? Or am I keeping to myself?

Am I participating in the human race? Or am I sitting on the sidelines?

Is the parade passing me by?

Grief can take on a life of its own, and great loss can make it difficult to re-enter life fully. But, I know it is possible, and Hello Dolly invited me to let go and live more fully.

Perhaps Les Miserables and other musicals portraying oppression and poverty work the same way on those who have the capacity to effect social change, exposing vulnerabilities and offering insight for transformation. Maybe I judged too harshly.

 

 

 

 

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God-vulnerability-faith

Growing in self-awareness

ring the Day of Reflection I recently facilitated, I introduced the volunteers to an adaptation of the Johari Window—four panes of a window designed to increase self-awareness.God-vulnerability-faithI suggested that their year of service is a wonderful opportunity for them to come to deeper self-knowledge because of the spiritual framework of their community and their service to marginalized people—two invitations to touch their own vulnerabilities.

Preparing for this day, I remembered a break-through in my own self-awareness journey. It happened a few years after college, when I was the caretaker for my university’s guest house.

Fr. Shawn Tracy was the director of Campus Ministry, and he was also a leader in the Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC) retreat movement.

HEC is a weekend retreat where people who have physical disabilities come together with able-bodied people to pray, ponder and celebrate their lives. HEC creates a prayerful atmosphere for people to reflect on their lives, to learn from one another and to support one another in a lively celebration of community.

The planning meetings were held at the guest house where I lived, and I got to know those involved with HEC—and they got to know me.

By the time I went on my first HEC retreat, the planning team knew me quite well, and Fr. Shawn asked me if I would give one of the weekend’s talks. I agreed.

I don’t remember the topic of my talk or even what I said; what I do remember was Fr. Shawn’s introduction of me to the group.

It was a fall day and dark clouds skidded across the sky. Occasionally, the sun would break though, filling the meeting room with bright light. God-vulnerability-faithIn his introduction of me, Fr. Shawn compared me to the sky that day. He talked about how I could be like the dark clouds gathering and casting a gray pall over everything, and then, suddenly, like the sun, break out in brightness. He talked about the mystery of me, the complexity of me and my passion for life.

Hearing myself described in those terms was like a thunder bolt. How could he see all that in me when I saw none of it?

Was I really that tumultuous? Was I a complicated mystery, a passionate person?

Rather than give my talk, I wanted to go outside, stand under that tempestuous sky and contemplate the words and images he used to describe me.

I knew that I could be moody, and I knew I kept secrets—two things I saw as negative. But Fr. Shawn made them sound appealing. It was as though my moodiness and secretiveness invited him want to get to know me and understand me.  I remember thinking, “He cares.”

After that introduction, I had a difficult time pulling myself together and giving my talk. As soon as I was finished, I went outside and stood under that dark sky and anticipated the breaks of sunlight. This is me, I thought, mysterious, complex and passionate.

 

 

 

 

gratitude-God-spirituality

Fill my heart with gratitude

Re-reading a journal from three years ago, I came upon an entry about my friend Ted, who had gone through surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer the previous year. Nine months after being declared “cancer free,” it was clear that something was wrong. He was understandably a bit reluctant to go and get checked out—who would want to face the recurrence of cancer?

During that time between realizing something was wrong and getting checked out, I wrote this: “I pray for Ted to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.”

Then I wrote, “How about me? Being present to what is instead of wishing for something else? Accept, surrender, stop resisting.”

A few weeks later, Ted found out the cancer had come back, and he died a few months after that.

Facing truths that we might not want to face, and accepting those truths can be so difficult. Fear comes into play, usually accompanied by anxiety.

As I was thinking about how Ted faced his illness and death—and pondering my own fears and anxieties—this prayer came to me: Lord, fill my heart with gratitude.

Gratitude helps me focus on what is, on the reality of my life right here and now. It helps me identify and accept the truths in my life—both the things I find difficult to accept and also those I easily embrace.

I believe that gratitude, like love, casts out fear.gratitude-God-spiritualityAnd yet, some realities of life can understandably create fear. Cancer is one of them, but there are others—loss of job, betrayal, death of a loved one, etc. Without looking for them or wanting them, we encounter bumps in the road—things beyond our control that upset the order of our lives.

It can be very difficult to be grateful in the midst of some horrible life situation, but that may be the point. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well, when everything is turning my way and everything I touch succeeds.

Being grateful when bad news outweighs the good news is the challenge—and the invitation.gratitude-God-spiritualityI work at a cancer support center, so every day I hear from people who have received bad news. Helping people find something for which to be grateful as they are facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—or even death—can be a daunting task. I think, though, that people come to our center not just to vent, but also to find hope.

Gratitude and hope go hand in hand.

The difficulties and challenges don’t go away, but gratitude has a way of robbing bad news of its power. Gratitude changes the focus.gratitude-God-spiritualityI have so much for which to be grateful—a home, job, family, friends, health, faith….

I want to revive the Litany of Gratitude I created when Jim was sick, add to it every day, and read it regularly. Then I will be more open to allowing God to fill my heart with gratitude.gratitude-God-spirituality

 

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

 

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-forgiveness-vulnerability

Atonement

I am not particularly political, but my car radio lured me into listening to parts of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I heard Kavanaugh boast about coaching his daughters’ basketball teams and his Jesuit education. Ward Cleaver came to mind as I listened to his self-portrayal. Perhaps I even rolled my eyes once or twice. I understand presenting oneself in the best possible light, but no one is that good, I thought.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityOne day, I heard that the girls’ basketball team he coaches came to the hearings—in their Catholic school uniforms. Really? What is he trying to prove? I wondered.

And then came the allegation about a sexual assault incident from his high school days.

And I began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand. Was that perfect father portrayal really just a charm offensive?God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityLast year’s disclosures by women who had been sexually assaulted made me think of the men who had not yet been named, those men who knew their histories and were now squirming as they waited for the shoe to drop.

I have to admit that I took a great deal of delight in knowing that those men who once dominated were now vulnerable, having no idea if or when a voice from their troubled past would intrude into their idyllic present.

Is Brett Kavanaugh one of those men? Was all that blarney about being so good just a smoke screen in anticipation of someone stepping forward to reveal his past?

And here is where I run into a dilemma. I am not the same person I was when I was seventeen or even twenty-seven. I made mistakes, and I own that. I sought help to deal with the issues that plagued my young life and have learned from my mistakes. I have atoned for the sins of my youth through prayer and service, and I don’t want to be judged by mistakes I made out of my brokenness and ignorance.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI wonder if Judge Kavanaugh has taken responsibility for the mistakes of his youth.

And I wonder what he would do if one of the girls on the team he coaches or if one of his daughters was sexually assaulted.

Would Judge Kavanaugh take the view that “boys will be boys” and minimize the damage done to the girl?  Would he counsel the girl to shake it off, as if it were a basketball foul?

Would he advise the boy to deny all accusations? Or would he counsel the boy to take responsibility for his actions, knowing that dark deeds that are locked away can be uncovered at any time, and that a life built on secrets can easily implode.

The man who assaulted me apologized a few weeks later. Two little words—I’m sorry—and he walked away free and clear. I was left with damage that took years to heal, and only now can I see that for all the harm he caused me, at least he owned it.God-forgiveness-vulnerability