Tag Archives: grace

New life

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet anticipation, a kind of limbo, when we are suspended between death and life.

It is a day that invites me to remember times when I have lived in that liminal space between death and life. Those are usually times when I have failed at something and have taken a step back to regroup—or have been so devastated by disappointment that I am incapable of moving forward and need to pause to pull myself together.

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The Holy Saturday experience is a model for living in trust, believing that all those pauses in my life—those times of disappointment and loss—are really stepping stones to something new and different.

Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, uses the image of Jonah inside the whale to describe that pause.

We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.

Rohr’s words remind me to ponder those times of transition, when I was suspended between death and new life, and how they turned out to be springboards for a deeper understanding of my call.

The story of Jonah has always been a favorite because I relate to his attempts to escape his call, thinking he could outrun God. I, too, tried to outrun God. But even as a young woman, I imagined Jonah shaking his head at me and saying, “Learn from me. You can’t outrun God.”  

Surrender is the word I associate with Jonah, but I was taught never give up. Like Jonah, giving in to God was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Over the years, though, I have had quite a few experiences of being inside the belly of the whale, suspended between what was and what will be— opportunities to throw my hands up in surrender and admit that God holds all the cards, to accept life as it is instead of how I wanted it to be.

Actually, I am in one of those times right now. The nonprofit where I work recently merged with a larger organization and we are assuming a new name and new identity. What has been will be no more—and what will be has yet to be revealed.

We are in transition.

Letting go of what was can be a challenge, especially for those who have a long history with our organization and feel invested in what we have built. Disappointment at losing what was and fear of the unknown future can create anxiety.

Accepting change and adjusting our expectations is a process that takes time.

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Holy Saturday extends the invitation to enter into that process of transformation from death to new life—looking back with gratitude for what has been, letting go of expectations connected with the past, accepting what is and looking forward to what will be.

I pray for the grace to let go of the past so that I can welcome new life.

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Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

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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
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Living in God’s grace

God-vulnerability-expectationsI think most of can relate to St. Paul’s “thorn” and have possibly even used the phrase “a thorn in my side” when referring to some troublesome person or situation.

It can be a family member, co-worker or friend who can get under my skin. Everyday situations and encounters—even a two-minute wait in line at the bank or grocery store—can feel like I am being pricked by a thorn.

When I am impatient, when I am reacting rather than acting or when I am rolling my eyes, I know I am having a thorn moment, that someone has done something that pushes my buttons.

What I find most helpful in those moments is to step back, take a few deep breaths and try to get some perspective.

Why is this particular person bugging me? What about a particular situation frustrates or upsets me? What is happening in my life that is unsettling me?God-vulnerability-expectationsI gained a deeper understanding of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians when I lived in l’Arche, where I lived very closely with people not of my choosing—people who came from different cultures and had different values. Clashes were bound to happen.

Facing disappointment after disappointment was disheartening, and it took me some time to see what was really happening—that that I was facing my unmet expectations. You are not in control, God seemed to be reminding me. Your way is not the only way. Those were tough truths to see and accept.

I learned many things in l’Arche, including the theory that when someone is pushing my buttons it is because they are revealing some part of me that I don’t particularly like and don’t want to see. Every time I was annoyed, I needed to stop looking at the other person and start examining myself.

The thorns in my life can reveal deeper truths about me, if I can be open and willing to face those truths.

The person I think is being stingy invites me to look at my own stinginess or lack of generosity. The one I see as needy invites me to look at my own insecurities.

The person who zips ahead of me in a line of cars reminds me that I, too, sometimes feel self-important. The person who exaggerates or even outright lies reminds me that I, too, sometimes may want to seem more accomplished than I am. The person who insists that her way is the right or only way to do something reminds me that I, too, like to have my way.

It can be easier to insist the problem is the situation or other person, but, I think, not very helpful.

With God’s grace—and lots of thorny experiences—I have come to see that every button-pushing experience, every thorn in my side, is really an invitation to growth in self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Accepting my weaknesses enables me to live in grace and to allow God to be in charge of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wonder

“You are a wonder,” Julia Roberts declares to her son in the movie Wonder. I gasped when I heard those words, because those same words were spoken to me just a month earlier.

Part of the group work for the Mind Body Skills sessions at the Cancer Caregivers workshop was a genogram exercise. I shared my family history, including the abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and suicides.resilience-God-ACEs

“How did you survive?” someone asked.

“The grace of God,” I replied.

“You are a wonder,” our group leader declared.

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way and that God protected me.

Perhaps I was not physically safe, but my person—my essence, my spirit and soul, the parts of me that mattered most—were safe. God snatched me up and held me.

As a child, I felt as if I lived two lives—one inside my body and the other outside of it—and I felt both visible and invisible. I seemed to go unnoticed and my needs unattended to (invisible) but trauma happened to me (visible). I could not solve the mystery of this paradox; my only hope was in God.

I had good reason to trust God, because I knew what God had done for Jesus. I related to Jesus as an innocent victim and rejoiced in God’s intervention.

It took a lot of time (and some intense therapy) to get over the confusing messages of my childhood. At some point I realized I was always going to be broken and in need of healing; I would always be healing but never healed.

The introduction of a twelve-step program for adult children of alcoholics was a game-changer for me. Here were my people, others who had similar childhoods, who understood the paradoxes, who asked similar questions. We spoke the same language and shared knowing looks. I had come home.

One thing I did not share, though, was my having been called by God when I was eight. Like other paradoxes, this one made no sense. Why would God choose me? I was clearly damaged. I was not going to become a saint—or any kind of holy person. I was always going to be in need of healing, always seeking wholeness.

I recently read The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Toward the end of the book, Dr. Harris concludes that not all people who experienced childhood trauma are suffering. “In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” (Page 218)

I am one of those whose early misfortune was transformed into gift. I can see the blessing in the curse and know that everything is possible with God, even bringing wholeness to a family tree with snapped branches.

It is a wonder.resilience-God-ACEs

 

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Love lost

A few weeks ago, the movie Letters to Juliet popped into my mind and I couldn’t seem to let it go. I’d seen it before, but I decided to rent it.

The movie is based on a non-fiction book about notes posted on the wall outside the house of Juliet of Verona and the “secretaries” who respond to the notes. I have never been to Verona, but apparently there really is a house called Casa di Giulietta—Juliet’s House—at Via Cappello, 23, Verona, with a courtyard where people leave letters.love-hope-fearThe movie is about an English woman who abandoned her Italian lover fifty years earlier and returns to search for him.

As I watched this movie the other night, I remembered a man I had met more than thirty years ago.

I had gone with a friend to upstate New York to support her at the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. I was against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, so I resonated with the anti-nuclear message of this group.love-hope-fearBut the encampment challenged me in ways I had not expected, and my discomfort intensified throughout that first day. I was too conventional for this kind of demonstration and found myself thinking of how I could get away.

By the end of that first day, my inner voice was saying, Leave now and don’t come back.

My distress continued into that evening, and I went for a run to regain my equilibrium.

We were staying with my friend’s cousin at his farm. The countryside was beautiful—rolling hills, farmlands and forests. The run was somewhat strenuous, but it felt good to exert myself physically as I grappled with my emotional dilemma.love-hope-fearAnd then on a steep hill, something snapped in my back and pain shot down my leg. I stood on the side of the road, bent over in agony, sobbing—and far from where I was staying. Somehow I managed to hobble home and then crumpled to the living room floor. Someone brought me an icepack and aspirin.

For several hours I just lay there, feeling relief from staying still.

At some point, a man came into the living room and introduced himself as Ross, a friend of the people I was staying with; he lived in their renovated chicken coop.

For the rest of that day, Ross kept me company. He was a landscaper by trade, but a poet by temperament. We talked for most of the night.

The next day, my host took me to a chiropractor; one adjustment eased the pain enough that I was able to sit in a car for the ride home.

Ross wrote beautiful, romantic letters to me and even came to visit. He was smitten; I was scared.love-hope-fearI said the distance between Ithaca and Philadelphia was too great—and our relationship ended before it really got started.

And yet, there he was in my memory as I watched a movie about love lost and found.

 

 

 

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Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer