Tag Archives: freedom


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


Falling apart

I think most of us have had something painful or difficult in our lives, experiences we might rather move away from (quickly) rather than examine for life lessons. My living in l’Arche was like that for me.

l’Arche is a Christian community where people with and without developmental disabilities live together and create community. Sounds idyllic, right? For some people, it is. But I was not one of those people. For me, living in l’Arche was very painful.

My plan had been to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life. I had quit my job, given away my furniture, packed the rest of my belongings into my car and headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I quickly realized, though, that my plan was not going to work out, and I left the community before my first year was up.

I was devastated—and humiliated and angry. This was the most difficult and painful situation I had gone through—and I had gone through some pretty painful things.

I think what made this more difficult was that I had brought it on myself. No one had coerced me or forced me. I had decided to go to l’Arche. It was a decision I had freely made with prayer and planning—and then it did not work out.

Shortly after leaving l’Arche, I sought spiritual direction to help me process my sorrow and grief.

All of my hurt, disappointment and frustration poured out in that session. Tears of sadness mixed with tears of anger. I was confused and felt like I had just been through an extreme spiritual battle—a battle I had lost.

Did I give up too quickly? Had I not been persistent enough? Doubt wracked me.

“I think I am falling apart,” I said to the spiritual director.

“I think you are falling together,” she replied.

Her words stopped me cold.

Had I been looking at this apparent failure from the wrong angle? Was the whole point of my moving to l’Arche to break me down, to uncover what I had so carefully kept hidden? Was I meant to fall apart so that God could put me back together in a different way? Had this experience revealed deeper truths to me that I might not have learned any other way?

Laying out the pieces of my shattered dreams and allowing someone else to look at them was a turning point. Where I had been stuck trying to piece things together in one way, she was able to offer a different view. It was like a jigsaw puzzle—one where I could not see the whole picture.

Great mysteries are sometimes hidden in unexpected places.

Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on the hidden mysteries of our lives and to be open to growing in trust that God sees the whole picture of our lives.

More often that we might think, God is helping us to fall together, even when it might feel like we are falling apart.



Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer



I was in my early twenties when I first read the book of Isaiah, and chapter 62, verse 3, gave me a visual that I have held onto ever since: You will be a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Imagine being a diadem, a crown—or more like a tiara I used to think—all shiny and sparkly, held by God. It was a mystical moment—when I could imagine myself as seen and loved by God, cherished and held. I could imagine God smiling just at the thought of me.God-freedom-love

After that, I began to collect those moments of awareness—when I knew myself as cherished, when something touched my soul, my essence. I tucked them away in my mind and heart, little treasures I could recall when I needed to feel loved.God-freedom-loveIn a Christology course in college, the professor demonstrated the experience of Jesus in John’s gospel (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1) Professor Prusak stood by door at the front of the classroom and then began to walk sideways and ever-so-slowly across the front of the class—repeating “word” as he walked. (Picture this man in a suit, inching across the classroom, murmuring word, word, word, word…)

About three-quarters of the way across the classroom was a chair and when he got to the chair, he stepped up on it, said “word” a few times and then stepped off on the other side. This signified the intensified time of Jesus’ human life when he walked the earth.

Excellent visual, I thought, of Jesus life, and also of my own. God is with me always, and then there are those moments on the chair, when life is intensified, when I am more—more alive, more vibrant, more tuned into God—those moments that remind me what I was created to be.

I was meant to be a diadem in the hand of God—that is what God desires. To live in that awareness, though, requires me to continually forgive (myself and others) so that I can be light and free—and to love myself as God loves me.God-freedom-loveWhen I was younger, I often compared myself to others and came up wanting. Others were kinder, prettier, friendlier, livelier, etc. I never measured up. But, at some point, I learned to let go of the comparisons and move toward comparing myself with myself—trying to be the best me I could be. (Running may have had something to do with this course-correction, because, as a runner, I strove to improve on my personal best rather than worrying about how I compared to other runners).God-freedom-love

When I can be my personal best, when I can stay focused on the course God has in mind for me, I can also be freer to support and encourage others along that path. Cooperating rather than competing, accepting rather than judging, shining as God intended.God-freedom-love


On my recent retreat, we prayed with Luke 24:13-35, the story of the two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus after Jesus was crucified. Jesus joins them on the walk, but they do not recognize him.

Early on in the retreat, one of the facilitators commented, “expectations can bind.” His words reminded me of my postings from last month about being bound and unbound. Was it expectations that bound me? Would I be unbound if I let go of my expectations?

As I pondered the Emmaus reading, it occurred to me that the disciples’ expectations may have bound them, but they also blinded them; they literally did not see that it was Jesus. Expectations can blind, I concluded.

The disciples knew Jesus had died and even though they had heard that he was risen, they had not yet reconciled with that reality. They had no expectations of meeting Jesus on the road and so they did not recognize him. Had they been expecting him, they might have recognized him.

How often is that true for me? How often do I set up expectations that limit my ability to see Jesus in others? How often do I miss the gifts being offered because I am not expecting them or because I am expecting something else?

Quite often, I fear.

When I met with my spiritual director a few weeks ago, I shared my ponderings about being bound and unbound. I talked about how I not only wanted to be unbound, but I want to leap into freedom. She suggested I focus my daily Examen on when I leap and when I fail to leap.

I began to note in my journal when I took risks and when I hesitated. Each time I hesitated, I tried to discern what held me back.

On retreat, leaping and not leaping were still on my mind, so the phrase expectations can bind resonated with me. I reviewed my journal, looking more closely at entries about not leaping, and I could see that my reluctance to leap was connected to a fear of being judged.

If I had been the person Jesus appeared to, I wonder if I would have recognized him and run to tell the other disciples that Jesus was alive. Even if I had recognized Jesus, I don’t think I would have shared it because I would have feared others’ disbelief. “Why would Jesus appear to you?” I can imagine them asking, their question dripping with disdain and disbelief.

My expectations of being judged do bind and blind me.

“Were not our hearts burning within us…?” (Luke 24:32) ask the disciples once they realize it had been Jesus walking with them. I pray for the grace to act when my heart is burning within me, to push against my fears and let go of expectations so that my eyes can be open to see Jesus walking beside me and all the gifts God is offering.

Set free


“Unbind Her” by Anna Woofenden, 2014

Anna Woofenden’s picture Unbind Her prompted me to ponder the difference between being bound and unbound. Her depiction of breaking free from the bindings and leaping away conjures up images of being free enough to soar into a new direction.

The idea of breaking free and leaping into some unknown future is appealing. But, breaking free can be difficult—just ask anyone who has walked away from an addiction to alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships, food, shopping or anything else that had kept them bound. It can be very challenging to walk away from a life lived in bondage, no matter how unsatisfactory or even painful that life might have been.

It is not always easy to walk away from people, situations or self-images that bind us. The old way is familiar, and finding a new way can present lots of challenges. Change often calls for a great deal of determination, discipline and perseverance; it involves saying “no” to what was previously a “yes.”

This Lent, I have been reflecting on times in my life when I turned away from relationships, jobs and behaviors that were holding me back. Sometimes my turning away was short-lived and I quickly returned to that which held me bound—old habits die hard. Other times, though, I have been able to stay strong in my resolve. Mostly, though, I feel I have been slowly chipping away at behaviors and beliefs that needed to be changed, those things that bound me.

Incremental changes over the years have added up and I can see that I am a much different person today than I was forty years ago. The invitation of Woofenden’s picture, though, is to ask if I am free enough to leap.

At the Easter Vigil last night, the priest talked about the leap of faith required of the apostles to believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and how we need to make that same leap to be followers of Jesus.

As he spoke, I imagined the scene at the tomb when Mary Magdalene and the other women had gone to tend to Jesus’ body and found that Jesus was gone. I could see them telling the apostles, and the apostles disbelieving them. I imagined Peter running to see for himself. Their emotions must have been all over the place—sadness at Jesus’ death, confusion that his body was gone and hope that something fantastic was happening.

Even imagining this emotional firestorm gave me pause. Am I free enough to feel strong emotions? Or do I keep my emotions in check? How would it feel, I wondered, if I let myself experience the range of emotions Mary and the others felt that first Easter?

I fear I have been afraid to feel.

My Easter prayer is to be set free so that I may experience deep joy, be open to possibilities, and be courageous enough to respond to God’s invitation to live fully. I want to leap into the future and trust that the best is yet to come.


The five freedoms

The yellowed edges on the single sheet of lined paper indicated it was old. This hand-written page, entitled The Five Freedoms, had spent years tucked away in a file folder. I don’t remember writing it or filing it away, but it is in my handwriting and in my cabinet.

A Google search indicated that author and psychotherapist Virginia Satir had written The Five Freedoms. I must have gotten them while I was in therapy or a self-help group during my thirties, when I was seeking to reconcile with my past and create a different future. The Five Freedoms are:

  1. The freedom to see and hear what is here instead of what should be, was or will be.
  2. The freedom to say what I feel and think, instead of what I should.
  3. The freedom to feel what I feel, instead of what I ought.
  4. The freedom to ask for what I want, instead of waiting for permission.
  5. The freedom to take risks in my own behalf, instead of choosing to be only “secure” and not rocking the boat.

Reflecting on these Five Freedoms reminded me of an exercise we once did in l’Arche at an assistants’ meeting. The leader read a list of ten or twelve statements, each related to some aspect of our personalities. After we listened to the list being read, we had to write down what we heard, what we remembered. Then the list was reread. We were then told that the items we missed, the ones that did not register with us, are the items we need to work on to incorporate into our lives. I remember that one of mine was about speaking what I believed, number two of the Five Freedoms.

I still struggle with it; my inner critic is powerful and loud.

Shoulds and oughts run through my mind, interfering with my freedom to feel, think, want and speak. I still find myself censuring what I say and doubting what I think and want.

I tend to be a fairly direct person, so holding my tongue can be a good thing for me. But, often I don’t speak, not because I am afraid of offending someone, but because I am afraid of being judged. Even when I figure out what I think and feel, I am often reluctant to say.

It is ironic that I have done a lot of public speaking about my nonprofit work, work that is based on beliefs and visions that have often challenged my audience. In those situations, I learned to put on the armor of God and stand firm in my convictions (Ephesians 6:10-18). But I have not yet gotten completely comfortable in wearing that armor in my personal life.

I have recently been pondering the story of Jesus calling Lazarus to “come out” and then instructing those standing nearby to “unbind him.” (John 11:43-44) Moving beyond shoulds and oughts is a way for me to come out and be free.


Anna Woofenden, 2014