Tag Archives: discipline

Remaining hopeful during difficult times

Last week, I got a new bike. My old bike was a twenty-year-old boy’s bike and swinging my leg over the bar had become increasingly more challenging. Last fall, I began researching bikes made specifically with older people in mind.

I found lightweight bikes and bikes with the pedals moved a little forward to accommodate aging hips. And then I found easy boarding bikes, with virtually no bar to climb over—just a platform to step across.

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When I ordered my new bike two weeks ago, I told the bike shop owner that I plan to ride this bike for the next twenty years.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how optimistic they were. We are in the midst of a pandemic that is killing people my age. It has even been nicknamed the boomer remover because of how vulnerable my peers and I are to this virus.

And I am buying a bike I plan to ride for the next twenty years!

How do I reconcile these two realities—my optimism and my vulnerability?

I am an optimist by nature. In the face of reality, no matter how dark or hopeless the current situation might seem, I still see potential to learn and grow. I believe that every curse has a blessing, and the invitation is to find the blessing and to learn something from current circumstances.

In the midst of this pandemic, I feel the anxiety of the not knowing—how long the pandemic will last, how many people will get sick, how many will die, how close to home the virus will come—all the uncertainties of the situation.

There are many mysteries, I often say, things over which I have no power or control. I believe I am invited to accept that I am powerless over them. At the same time, I am invited to continue to live in trust and hope.

And that means not just being alive, but living fully, joyfully and gratefully.

Here are some practices that help me to remain optimistic and hopeful:

  1. Focusing on what I have instead of what is lacking. I am richly blessed by family, friends, a home, food, etc., and reminding myself of all that I have helps me see abundance instead of scarcity.
  2. [MB1]  grateful for what I have. Keeping a gratitude journal and every day, naming at least three things for which I am grateful (by writing them, saying them out loud or at least calling them to mind) reinforces how much good is in my life.
  3. Telling the people in my life that I am grateful for them—in person, via phone, email or snail mail—at least one person a day.
  4. Saying the Serenity Prayer every day to remind myself what I can control (me) and what I cannot control (most everything else). Keeping the focus on me helps me have realistic expectations and leads to greater serenity.

What helps you stay hopeful?

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 [MB1]

Expressions of love

This week is the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, a very busy time for chocolatiers, florists and jewelers. Cards and candy hearts bearing expressions of love are flying off the shelves.

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I remember this holiday from my childhood as one of dread because of the custom of giving Valentine’s Day cards in school. I worried that I would not receive any or many. I feared being excluded because I was not one of the popular kids. I feared the cards I gave out would be rejected or found wanting.

For me, this holiday was not a celebration of love, but just another way to touch my insecurities and make me anxious.

Even though I grew past those early feelings about this holiday, I have remained aware of the cultural expectation of it and of those who still may feel left out, those who may see it as a spotlight on their loneliness.

Several years ago, someone made a comment that reminded me of the impact Valentine’s Day can have on those who feel excluded. So, I decided to celebrate February as the month of love, and each day, I sent a little note to let someone know I was thinking of him or her.

Mostly I sent these notes to people who would not be getting Valentine’s Day cards or gifts, those people who look forward to February 15.

I so enjoyed writing those notes that I did it again the next year and every year since. It has become something that I look forward to, and it has helped me to be excited for the holiday.

Each day in February, I devote part of my prayer time to thinking of those in my life who may be particularly vulnerable or sad or lonely, and I send a note. The notes are usually just a few lines, expressing my gratitude for our friendship or my hope for their peace.

It is a small act, I know, but one that I hope brings a little light to someone’s life.

How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Living in the present

Next week, we are offering a Day of Reflection at the cancer center where I work. This year’s theme is Mindfulness, and my presentation will focus on the practice of paying attention to what grabs my interest, of noticing what I notice.

I recently came across a journal entry from a few years ago when a friend was facing cancer. My prayer for him was that he would be able to be present to what was instead of wishing for something else.

Staying in the present, especially when we are going through a time of uncertainty, difficulty or discomfort, can be challenging. I remember having an image of my friend with his heels dug in, as if resisting the reality of cancer was going to make it go away. Spending so much energy on wishing for a different present meant my friend missed lots of blessings that could not catch his attention; he was focused somewhere else.

It wasn’t until the last two weeks of his life, when he was on hospice, that he let go of his resistance and became aware of the present. In those last weeks, he was able to laugh again and to be grateful for all the people who gathered around him to show their love.

I plan to tell his story at next week’s Day of Reflection.     

How much do we miss by wishing for something other than what we have?

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Noticing what I notice, paying attention to what grabs my attention—and looking for the invitation in what catches me, is a way to be present to what is happening now in my life.

As part of my presentation, I will ask the participants to go for a little walk—it does not have to be far—and to pay attention to what they notice in the space surrounding them. Each person will notice something different—and even if two people notice the same thing, their reasons will be different.

You and I might walk to the corner and both notice the cedar tree out front. It may speak to you of strength and invite you to stand tall and straight; it may speak to me of color and invite me to live in technicolor.

Or we may both notice the red sportscar driving down the street. It may speak to you of speed and invite you to slow down; it may speak to me of travel and invite me to be open to something new.

It also might happen that the two of us hear the same invitation but from different sources—you may notice a fallen leaf that invites you to reflect on the cycle of life and I may notice a baby squirrel that prompts the same reflection.

The point is to notice what I notice and to hear the invitation in whatever presents itself to my consciousness. If I can do that, I will be more likely to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.

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Speaking of faith

Reflecting on Colossians 1:1-8 the other morning, these words of St. Paul caught my attention:

“…we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the holy ones…”

I stopped reading to reflect.

I imagined the scene. Paul, someplace far away, writing to the Colossians of what he has heard about them. I wondered who told Paul of the Colossians’ faith. Was someone passing through Paul’s town who had been to Colossae? Had someone written to Paul?

And why did Paul take the time to write to the Colossians to tell them what he had heard? Had they been struggling and he felt they needed encouragement or praise? Or had Paul been struggling and hearing such good news overjoyed him?

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I wondered how the Colossians heard Paul’s praise. Did they post the letter for everyone to read? Did they offer spontaneous thanks to God for guiding them and giving them strength to live the Gospel? Did they boast to their neighbors in the next town about how Paul praised them?

And then I wondered if anyone is speaking of my faith. Has anyone heard of my faith in Jesus and the love I have for all the holy ones? Would anyone write a message like Paul’s to me to encourage or praise me?

I pondered this for a while, letting memories surface of positive things people have said to me, things related to how I live my faith. “Take it in,” my friend Jim used to tell me when I received praise or a compliment.

Brushing compliments aside, dismissing praise, would be more my style. Accepting compliments seemed to be a stepping-stone toward pride, as if I would become too proud if I accepted hearing good things about myself. I felt unworthy of praise and had great difficulty receiving compliments and accepting praise. I have worked on this—allowing myself to hear good things about myself and believe them—but I still struggle to take in good things people say about me.

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After pondering Paul’s praise of the Colossians for a while, I went back to reading the scripture passage and discovered that Epaphras was the one who had told Paul.

Who will speak for me? I wondered. Who is my Epaphras, talking about how my faith is growing and bearing fruit?

And for whom am I Epaphras? Or Paul? Do I praise others for their growth in faith? For their works on behalf of the holy ones? Am I passing along positive messages about others’ faith?

These thoughts have stayed with me all week and made me more aware of opportunities to share my faith and to offer praise and encouragement.

I want to be like Epaphras and Paul, telling of people’s good works, reflecting back to those in my life how their love is shining through and encouraging them with praise.

Seeing good works, acknowledging them and offering praise—three great practices to deepen my faith and grow in love.

Tips for the spiritual journey

The spiritual life invites us to turn away from cultural ideals of power, success and accumulation and to embrace vulnerability, simplicity and poverty. Spirituality speaks of surrender, sacrifice, discipline and detachment.

But we are immersed in our culture, swimming in it, so it can be difficult even to see our attachments and recognize what needs to be let go.

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Some suggestions for the spiritual journey:

~Our culture may demand productivity, but God desires our presence and openness. Doing more (more praying, reading, etc.) and believing we have control of spiritual outcomes can be counterproductive, because our efforts alone will not produce spiritual results.

In the spiritual life, our task is to be open to receive whatever God sends; God does the rest.

A good first step is to let go of our assumptions and expectations and to accept what God sends. Set aside time every day to be present to God and to receive the gift of God’s love.

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~Don’t compare your spiritual journey with another’s. Each of us is at a different place and only God knows where we are meant to be. Accept where you are and focus on your own growth.

Matthew 20:1-16 tells of workers who came early in the day and agreed to a wage. Others came to work later in the day, yet they received the same wage as those who worked a full day. The all-day workers protested. The owner reminded them that they got the agreed-upon wage, adding: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God’s mercy and love is extravagant and abundant. When we are the recipients, it is wonderful. But when we look around and see others we deem as less worthy receiving the same abundance, it can seem we got cheated. Don’t look around.

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~Practice mindfulness. Learning to notice what we notice helps develop awareness of where God is moving in our lives. Stop once or twice a day and look back over the past few hours. When did you feel closest to God? And when did you feel most distant from God?

Learn to look openly at what brings you into harmony with God and what distances you from God, trusting that the Holy Spirit is engaged in both.

Growing in awareness helps us make small course corrections that enable us to be more tuned into God’s movement in our lives.

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~Practice gratitude. Gratitude creates an awareness of the blessings and graces being poured into our lives, but which we can dismiss or not even notice because we are not looking.

Begin by noticing how often you say, “thank you.” Make note of small gifts and blessings you receive throughout the day. It can be as simple as someone holding a door open for you or a patient driver.

Offer thanks for every little thing because gratitude begets gratitude.

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Walking with Jesus

I once asked a friend how often she thought about God. The question came out of my admiration of her—she seemed so peaceful and holy, and I figured it must be some kind of God thing.

“Throughout the day,” she said, and then she told me about her practice of intentionally bringing God into situations in her everyday life.

“How often do you think about God,” she then asked me. “Not that often,” was my reply.

I wanted to be more aware of God throughout my day and decided to adopt her practice of intentionality. I quickly realized that I needed to adapt the practice a bit. I am a very visual person, so it was easier for me to imagine Jesus walking beside me throughout the day.

Petition and praise became the two categories into which I slotted events as each day unfolded.

A cashier at the grocery store who seemed to be having a difficult day would elicit a prayer of petition. Or a mother struggling with a tired child or my own impatience. I would turn to Jesus and ask him to help.

Someone holding the door for me, children playing happily or a kind word would bring forth a prayer of praise and gratitude.

Each person and every event took on a different hue when I turned to Jesus standing beside me and tried to look at each person or event through Jesus’ eyes and with his compassion.

Where I might have negatively judged someone who was being rude, Jesus invited me to imagine that person’s back story and consider what awful thing might have happened to make that person that way. I started to pity people who were angry or mean, reminding myself that I would not want their lives.

Judgment faded; compassion increased.God-kindness-loveWhen I went to work for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I learned of Mother Cabrini’s practice of living from the heart of Jesus. She had exchanged her heart for the heart of Jesus and saw the world through the eyes of Jesus’ heart. Even more intimate that visualizing Jesus standing beside me was visualizing my heart swapped out for Jesus’s heart.

As the days, weeks, months and years passed, the practice became more a part of life, and I found myself more aware of God.

When my mother was hospitalized last month, one of my first thoughts was, God has her. The medical people could do what they could and I can do what I can, but ultimately, I know that God is holding my mother, and that awareness brought relief and peace.

Reflecting back, I realize how much the years of practicing bringing Jesus into everyday circumstances has become a part of my life and how much more quickly I can let go of worry because I know I am not alone in any burdensome situation. Just as God has my mother, God has me and that is the safest place I can be.God-kindness-love

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I love you more than…

I love you more than you will ever know.

Those were among the final words my friend Ted spoke to me when we were together just before he died from esophageal cancer two years ago.

I told him that I knew how much he loved me, and I believed I had a pretty good idea; we had been good friends for more than thirty years. During his illness, we spoke every day, sometimes two or three times. I knew he loved me.God-friends-cancerMy friend Lisa recently told me of the death of one of her guy friends. She was devastated by this loss and inconsolable in her grief.

Good guy friends are great gifts. They are also not all that common—which makes them even more precious.

My friend Jim used to tell me that he believed I had good friendships with men because I grew up with brothers (one older and one younger). He believed that growing up with brothers taught me to accept both the gangster and the vulnerable sides of a guy.God-friends-cancerI would agree and add, “My brothers taught me to have realistic expectations of men.”

One of the relationships I kept up after I left the FBI was with an agent named Bob Hickey—formally known as Robert J. Hickey, Jr. For ten years after I left the Bureau, Bob and I got together regularly, even though he lived in Washington, D.C., and I was in Philadelphia. Our friendship was important to both of us, and we dedicated time and energy to keeping it alive.

Bob encouraged me in my running, and we often ran the Mall in D.C.  I remember a run on one of his visits to Philadelphia; I wanted to quit, and he kept urging me to go on. The run ended at a bridge over a railroad track, and running up that hill seemed impossible. “It’ll build character,” Bob prodded, which was just the dare I needed to dig deep for the last burst of energy. It is also a line that has inspired me when I have faced other challenges.God-friends-cancerThen I moved to Canada, and Bob married a woman who seemed a tad bit jealous of our friendship. I tried to reassure her that while I loved Bob dearly, I did not want to marry him, and that I was happy for them. But, things were different after he got married.

Bob loved all things Irish—music, dance, literature—and he loved to visit his relatives in Ireland. The last time we spoke, I was planning my trip to Ireland in August. He was happy for me.

Bob died last summer. Since learning of his death, I have been recalling wonderful memories of our friendship, and I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Like Ted, Jim and the other men who have blessed my life, his friendship brought me great joy.

I love you more than you will ever know.God-friends-cancer

 

Spiritual practices

My heart was a theme during my retreat last month. I sometimes worry that my heart has become too guarded or even closed.

The last seven years have been a time of great loss for me, so I understand my inclination to protect my heart from being broken again. I also know that a broken heart can be the most loving heart if I allow the fissures to heal rather than become deep crevices, if I allow the breaks to be entrances rather than chasms that are impossible to cross.

At the end of the movie Frozen, Elsa declares, “Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.”

I cried as I watched this children’s movie—and not just a few tears trickling from my eyes, but wrenching sobs escaping from my heart. Did Elsa’s insight touch me because my heart is frozen? And what act of true love could thaw my frozen heart?spiritual-practices-love-prayer

Many people have touched my heart with friendship and great acts of generosity and kindness throughout my life. I have been abundantly blessed.

So in an attempt to unthaw my heart and as an act of love, I decided to write a letter every day during February and connect with people who have been loving toward me. Twenty-eight days of love—that is how I have been thinking of February.spiritual-practices-love-prayer

Every morning in prayer, I pay attention to who comes to mind, whose name is planted on my heart that day, and then I write a note.

Two things I learned from this practice:

The first is that praying about the people I love sparks memories and gratitude. Images float into my consciousness, recollections of friends rush in and warm my heart. I am reminded of how blessed I am to be so loved.

The second is a reminder of the benefits of discipline.

Discipline disposes us toward whatever we are practicing. Prayer, meditation, acts of kindness, service, etc., dispose us toward positivity. Starting my day with thoughts of love predisposes me to look for love during the day—and helps me to more quickly identify words and acts that are not loving. Awareness helps me make better choices throughout the day.

Facebook reminded me this week that I started this blog four years ago. Writing daily and posting weekly has been a good discipline for me.

Discerning what to share in my blog helps me see more clearly where God is calling me to grow, especially when I write about a frustration or some old hurt and its residual anger. The discipline of writing also helps me to be more aware of everyday blessings and the many, ordinary ways God touches my life.

What we focus on becomes a bigger part of us.

I want to focus on trust instead of fear and on love instead of hate. I want my words and actions to remind me daily that Jesus’ heart is all love and that I am invited to live that love.spiritual-practices-love-prayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discipline

Throughout November, as I was working on my novel, people commented on the discipline required to write 50,000 words in one month. I agree. It does take discipline to write an average of 1,667 words every day for thirty days.

Fortunately, discipline appeals to me. Personality-wise, I am someone who is comfortable with things being open-ended, in process, which can be somewhat undisciplined. So, I love things that add structure to my life, that give me a framework for actually finishing something.

When my adult faith journey was just beginning, books on discipline attracted me more than any other spiritual books. Fortunately, lots of spiritual writers—both ancient and modern—are pro-discipline, so it was easy to find writings to satisfy my craving and to affirm that discipline matters.

For as long as I can remember, at least some parts of my life have been quite disciplined. Keeping a journal is a discipline I developed early on and have maintained throughout my life. Attending Mass regularly, even daily for most of my adult life, and going on annual retreats are other disciplines. Eating well and exercising are two more.

Almost twenty years ago, three friends and I started a faith-sharing group, and we each committed to praying an hour a day. Although the group no longer exists, I still set aside that hour every morning and show up for prayer.

I used to run for exercise and then switched to walking. When we got Detroit, I started walking her every morning and every evening. Even though we now have a yard for her to play in and get enough exercise, we still take our walks. Through rain, snow, sleet, heat or cold, we walk. In Philadelphia, we walked through hurricanes. Only thunderstorms keep us inside (although the recent very cold temperatures in Michigan have shortened our walks, and I am getting more exercise by shoveling snow).

Some people, commenting on my disciplines, have said they think discipline would be too restrictive for them, but I find the structures created by my disciplines somehow enable me to be freer. It is one of those paradoxes of life.

Disciplines do require sacrifice. Writing my novel in November meant limiting social activities. Making time for prayer and exercise every morning means I don’t get to sleep in. I have to use vacation time to go on retreat. A healthy diet means limited junk food, etc.

But I don’t mind these sacrifices because I think that practicing discipline has given me the gift of fortitude, and fortitude enabled me to make the commitment to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days and to complete the task.