Tag Archives: faith

Lent-God-spirituality

Seek light

One of the gifts of retreat is that in the slowing down and stepping away from daily life and routines, it is easier to pay attention to what God is stirring up inside me, to notice what I notice and to take time to reflect on what I notice. It is the practice of mindfulness, and quiet days of retreat offer ample time to pay attention to God.

Coming back from retreat and stepping back into life challenges me to find ways to slow down during the day and continue to notice what is catching my attention.

I once heard someone explaining Lectio Divina using the image of the sun shimmering on the ocean—the way that glistening is difficult to miss and can be mesmerizing.Lent-God-spiritualityWatching the sun rise over water is an image that returns to me repeatedly. I don’t take many pictures, but whenever I am blessed to see the sun rising over water, out comes my camera. Perhaps because it is such a concrete example of light breaking through the darkness.

Praying with Isaiah 58:1-9 the other day, the phrase, then your light shall break forth like the dawn, brought to mind many times I have watched the sun rise over a wide expanse of water.

Every sunrise is different, depending on the clouds, but every sunrise speaks to me of potential and blessing. Every morning brings a chance to try again, to start over. Watching the darkness recede and the sky fill with light reminds me of that gift of hope that God gives me again and again.

If yesterday wasn’t the best day, if I was judgmental or critical or impatient, God gives me another chance today to do things differently, to try another way.Lent-God-spiritualityTell people there’s another way, was something my friend Jim instructed me during the weeks before he died. The other way he was referring to was one of trust and hope, rather than fear and despair. His other way meant living fully and thanking God for everything. In the face of the death, he believed in life.

Words and images from that time of Jim’s illness and death are coming back to me this Lent. I am doing something new, (Isaiah 43:19) God is telling me again this Lent. What that is, I have yet to discover. I just need to pay attention, stay open, look toward the light and be ready to say yes.Lent-God-spirituality

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Lent-God-spirituality

Being open to the presence of God

Sometimes my liturgical seasons seem to get their wires crossed—I experience Lenten contrition in August or Easter joy during Advent. This year, I am resonating more with Advent than with Lent.

Advent begins with the image of the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). That is what I am experiencing as Lent begins—walking in light. The darkness of the grief that has gripped me for the past six years seems to have lifted, and my spirit feels light and free. Instead of donning sackcloth and ashes, I feel like laughing and dancing.

Joy and gratitude have taken up residence; contentment reigns. For as long as this feeling lasts, I want to enjoy it.Lent-God-spiritualitySo, about Lent.

True confession: I am addicted to chocolate and rarely go a day without it.Lent-God-spiritualityOne year, just after college, my housemate and I gave up chocolate and alcohol for Lent. I thought giving up alcohol would be more difficult, but it was not. At the grocery store, I repeatedly noticed candy bars on the checkout conveyor belt. How did that happen? I would wonder, knowing full well that I must have put them there, even though I was completely unaware that I had done it. Giving up alcohol for Lent? No problem. But chocolate? No way.

I have a desk drawer at work designated as the snack drawer—it is stocked with chocolate in a variety of forms—granola bars with chocolate chips, chocolate covered almonds and straight-up chocolate candy. It is not a secret stash, and anyone is welcome to dip into this treasure trove of sweets.Lent-God-spiritualityOne Lent, a staff person said she wanted to give up chocolate and asked if I would be willing to join her. She wanted me to empty my snack drawer because she feared the temptation would be too great for her. I explained that I give things up for Lent to become holier—or at least more focused on God—and giving up chocolate would only make me grumpier.

My fasting for Lent tends to be more about giving up being judgmental or being critical or being impatient—more attitudes than actual things. Changing my attitudes seems to have more potential to be transformational in my spiritual journey than changing my eating habits.

My Lenten reflection book encourages making Lent “a penitential season,” and says the purpose of penitential practices (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) is “to open oneself more fully to the presence of God.”

This Lent, I want to fast from judgmentalism, scarcity, stinginess and fear—and feast on  abundance, joy, trust, generosity and gratitude. This Lent, I want to bask in light and live in freedom.Lent-God-spirituality

God-spirituality-vulnerability

A gentle push toward God

When I tell people I am going on a week’s silent retreat, the usual reaction is a grimace. A whole week without talking? Follow-up questions usually run along the lines of, “You mean outside of the sessions?” or “You mean outside of the meals and breaks?” or some version of looking for an out.

I do talk with my spiritual director once a day—a check-in to see where God is leading me—but otherwise there are no sessions, no chitchat, no casual conversations, no television or internet. Retreat is an opportunity to disconnect from the world. Every year, I look forward to it.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOnce people accept I really mean silent, the next question is usually, “Then what do you do all day?”

Mostly, I pray, meditate and rest. I also take walks—both exercise and meditative walks. I knit and do puzzles, and I write—a lot.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityAbide in love was the phrase I took with me on retreat this year. I was clear this phrase was from 1 John 4:16 rather than John 15:9 (As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.) Although this is one of my favorite scripture passages, I hear it more as an invitation to stay close to Jesus, to remain by his side.

I hear the other abiding to be more outward focused—as if there is a pool or lake of love and I am invited to stop there, to dip into this pool of love, and then go out to others.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityThe beauty of stepping away from the world is that it offers an exceptional opportunity to be mindful, and I find it much easier to notice what I notice, to pay attention to the words, images and memories that arise in the silence.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOne day, after a long walk, I sat on a dock overlooking a wildlife area—a frozen bog with brown grasses swaying gently in the breeze—and a Simone Weil quote about a labyrinth popped into my mind.

The story is that a person enters the labyrinth. He continues walking, not really knowing if he is making progress or merely walking in circles. Eventually, with courage, he finds the center, and there he meets God. God consumes him, and he is changed by this encounter. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityI love the image of meeting God in the center and then being consumed by God—to give myself over completely, to surrender to God and to be changed by the experience.

Reflecting on that image reminded me of something I had read on the feast of St. Francis de Sales the week before—about encouraging people to find the religious dimensions of their lives.

Noticing what I noticed, I wondered if God is calling me to be someone who stands at the entrance of the labyrinth and gently pushes others toward the center.God-spirituality-vulnerability

 

 

 

God-vulnerability-hope

Becoming

During my twenties, I worked as a stenographer for the FBI, the first five years in the Norfolk office and then I transferred to Philadelphia. I left in 1979 to get a college degree, and I planned to go back as an FBI agent.

But things did not work out quite the way I had planned. After college, I didn’t return to the Bureau, and I let go of most of those relationships.

I have no regrets—except for a brief moment when I turned fifty and it occurred to me that if I had gone back to the Bureau, I could retire with a great pension and excellent health insurance. But…God-vulnerability-hopeSeven years ago, a woman I knew in Norfolk “friended” me on Facebook, and two years ago, another women from Norfolk “found” me through a Google search. A few months ago, a third woman from the Norfolk FBI Office connected with me through Facebook.

The wonders of technology.

I hadn’t been avoiding them, but I also had not thought of reaching back to that period of my life. To what end?

This third woman sent me her phone number, and I called her the other day.

Let me give you a little background. My twenties were no picnic. I made one bad decision after another, stuck in a dark place I did not know how to escape.

With very little effort, I can still conjure up the shame and guilt from those years.God-vulnerability-hopeI steeled myself before calling Debbie Sue because I had a pretty good idea of how she would remember me.

Debbie Sue was the daughter of a Baptist Pastor; she introduced me to Christian revivals and altar calls. As a northern Catholic in southern Virginia, I was a distinct minority, and Debbie Sue was the person I went to when I experienced discrimination because of my religion or my northern accent. When it came to religion and Yankees, she was unambiguous, and her certainty helped clarify many things for me.

So, how did she remember me? Well, I was one of the first women she had ever heard use the “F” word. Yeah, that was me—crass and confrontational. I was called “Mad.”

But then our conversation moved on to what we each had become. We shared our life stories and marveled at how good God has been to us.

“When did you become a Christian?” she asked.

“You are not going to believe this,” I said, “but it was March 7, 1973,” which was in the midst of that dark time. I then shared my St. Paul-like conversion experience and how I started going to daily Mass to atone for my sins.

“Oh, I believe you,” Debbie Sue affirmed. God forgives; we keep moving forward. Debbie Sue suggested that, like St. Paul, we should take new names. I told her I am now called Madeline.

People in the Norfolk FBI Office saw me through a dark time, and I am grateful for my history with them. Talking with Debbie Sue reminded me that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26) and that I am not defined by my past.God-vulnerability-hope

God-vulnerability-service

Vulnerability as a gift

Every winter, my church participates in a rotating shelter program for people who are homeless; this year, thirty men are staying with us for a week.

Our parish school closed years ago, but for this one week, classrooms are converted into bedrooms, the gym into a cafeteria, and a large meeting room into a gathering space with televisions, games and snacks. It is an excellent example of repurposing.

I love the outpouring of generosity this program elicits, as parishioners step up to serve as hosts, prepare meals, provide transportation and do laundry. The planning for this week is spearheaded by one couple who start months in advance to make sure they have enough volunteers lined up to meet the needs of our guests this week.God-vulnerability-serviceMost nighttime shelters are set up for sleeping, and the people who are staying usually have to leave for the day. The rotating shelter program operates under the same rules, but holidays are the exception.

On New Year’s Day, I was one of four volunteers who spent the afternoon with our guests.

The day before, I was aware that our guests were arriving that evening. Throughout the day, I held the guests, organizers and volunteers in prayer. I was conscious of how blessed I am to have a home with heat—and to earn enough money to be able to pay my heating bills. All day, I thanked God for my blessings.God-vulnerability-serviceTwice in my life, I have been without a home and had to rely on the generosity of others to have a place to stay. Both times, I was humiliated and felt incredibly vulnerable; and I did not like it.

So being able to offer hospitality to others through this program is especially meaningful to me.

The afternoon started with lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of fresh flowers, creating a feeling of spring inside—in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. I sat with two other volunteers, and after we had finished eating, one of the guests came to our table and offered to clear away our dishes.

“Thank you,” we each said as he carried away our trays.

“I like to help,” he commented.

Being vulnerable and needing to rely on the generosity of others can create the sense of being a taker, of having little or nothing to offer. It took me a long time to understand the gift of vulnerability—the gift of seeing myself as being an opportunity for others to be generous.

My time as host on New Year’s Day included refilling water pitchers, replenishing snacks and helping guests with their medications. Last summer, I learned to play Euchre (a card game that is popular in Michigan), and I spent part of the afternoon in a Euchre game.

I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to put myself at the service of others, and also to be an opportunity for someone else to serve.

 

kindness-compassion-faith

Seeing a kinder world

A recent social media post about a random act of kindness was met with a variety of responses, most of which were some version of “too bad more people don’t do that” or “that used to be the norm.”

I wanted to comment that many people still do that, and that kindness is everywhere—if we are open to see it.kindness-compassion-faithDuring a recent visit with a woman I knew as a teen, she lamented the bad things that were happening in the old neighborhood. “Every day,” she said, “someone gets shot there.”

“Really?” I asked. “Have you been back to the old neighborhood?”

“Of course not,” she said, seeming shocked that I would even suggest it. “I watch the news.”

Aha.

Many people seem to believe that the news is a comprehensive and honest portrayal of daily life. They have forgotten the maxim coined by news outlets: If it bleeds it leads.

I acknowledge that the proliferation of guns has made our country a more dangerous place to live, but crime is not new. The overexposure to violence on the twenty-four hour news cycle is what is new, and it creates the impression that only bad things are happening in our world. The truth is that bad things have always happened—alongside good things.

But if we are convinced that only bad things are happening, we will miss the good things that are happening all around us.kindness-compassion-faithRandom acts of kindness are not sensational so they don’t get much press, but I see acts of kindness every day. Mostly, they are small things that do not rise to the level of television newsworthiness. They do, though, contribute to the creation of a caring community.kindness-compassion-faithAt work the other day, someone suggested taking up a collection for a man who has been extra helpful this year (his random acts of kindness would fill a whole book), and someone else asked what we can do for a volunteer who is having surgery. A representative from a local company called to say they had collected gifts cards for us. Later, two people suggested sending cards to people in particularly difficult situations.

Kindness abounds, but we can easily miss it if fear colors our outlook and keeps us locked in our homes. We cannot see goodness when we are only looking for evil.kindness-compassion-faithBeing more aware of kindness helps to counteract the negativity of the news.

Performing random acts of kindness also helps because it predisposes us to seeing the good by being the good.

My New Year’s resolution:

  • To perform at least one random act of kindness every day;
  • To acknowledge the kindnesses I witness by saying, “You are so kind” or “that was so kind;” and
  • To accept acts of kindness with heartfelt gratitude.

kindness-compassion-faithI invite you to join me in focusing on acts of kindness—performing them, acknowledging them and accepting them. Perhaps then social media will explode with stories of kindness, and we will see kindness as the norm. kindness-compassion-faith

advent-God-vulnerability

Open to the unexpected

advent-God-vulnerability

My father could be quite the bigot. He thought that anyone who was not Polish was somehow less than. My grandparents all came from Poland, and in my dad’s eyes, Poles were a superior race. He could go on and on about the inferiority of other races—Italians, Irish, etc.

But his two closest friends were Irish and Italian. How did he reconcile that?

When he was disparaging people from Ireland and Italy and I would ask about his friends, he would say, “That’s different.”

He felt similarly about people of African descent. But, when he was much friendlier with our new African-American neighbor than he had ever been with our old Polish neighbor, I asked how that made sense to him.

“That’s different,” he said.

My father could differentiate good people from bad—despite race or ethnic heritage. Our old neighbor, the Polish guy, was not a very nice man. He was the kind of person who yelled at kids playing in the field next to his house, the kind of man our mother told us to avoid.

Our new neighbor, the African-American guy, was the opposite.

Skin color and ethnic heritage had nothing to do with it. The same was true for my dad’s close friends. Because he saw them as individuals, their ancestry did not get in the way of their friendships.

Jesus healing the ten lepers and the one foreigner who came back to give thanks reminds me of my dad’s biases.

I can imagine this scenario today with a Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister, Rabbi, Imam or any other religious leader, healing ten people—nine of whom are from their religious tradition and one is a foreigner—an outsider, someone who is seen as other than, perhaps from some demonized group. And only that foreigner, that one who is thought of as less than, comes back to say thanks.

We can get caught up in believing we know how people will act and react based on some preconceived notions. We can rationalize our prejudices and excuse ourselves when we condemn whole groups of people.

During Advent, we reflect on Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist—Biblical characters who could easily be looked down upon and judged as less than because of their life circumstances or ethnic background.

Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen. John the Baptist lived in the desert and proclaimed a radical message. Mary and Joseph were relegated to sleeping among the animals.

Yet, we celebrate John the Baptist for speaking truth to power. But today, people who do the same are likely to be castigated. Pregnant teens, homeless people and refugees are more often thought of as problems to be solved than people we can learn from. We can use the word foreigner as an slur.

Jesus challenges our preconceived notions and invites us to be open to and surprised by the unexpected.

And as my dad’s experiences taught me, moving past biases opens the door to unexpected relationships that make life richer. advent-God-vulnerability