Tag Archives: gratitude

Birthdays in heaven

Jim and I used to celebrate our “feast days”—mine is July 22, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and his was July 25, the feast of St. James. During my morning prayer on each of those days recently, I recalled how we would mark these occasions—usually with a card and a small gift related to our patron saint.

Although Jim is no longer physically present, I still feel close to him, especially on days that were significant when he was alive.

God-faith-grief

At lunch with friends the other day, one mentioned that her grandson’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks. This is will be the second birthday “since he is gone,” she said. The expression birthdays in heaven came to mind. Although her grandson is no longer physically present, his presence is still very strong, and she wants to mark his birthday.

God-faith-grief

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a bereavement group at the cancer support center where I work. A dozen people talked about the pain of loss and the process of grief. They were strangers before coming to this group, and now they are connected by their shared experience of loss.

At the end of the meeting, the conversation took on a different tone as they planned their monthly Saturday dinner together.

Hope and resiliency were the words that came to mind as the air in the room became lighter. In the midst of deep sorrow, these twelve people were excited about their upcoming dinner.

Life is so often that kind of balancing act; sorrow and joy sitting side by side.

We hold all kinds of sorrows—because of death, dashed dreams, family members lost to addictions, betrayals, health issues and so on—and yet we also hold hope that things will get better.

And if we can hold onto that hope, things usually do get better.

We learn to carry our sorrow without letting it overwhelm us. We remember good times and discover deep gratitude for what had once been. We create a niche in our hearts where we store happy memories.

These experiences of loss change our lives and change us. They can increase our capacity for empathy and compassion, and they can teach us what really matters in life.

Moving through loss and grief can take a long time. People can get stuck in grief, fearing that to let go of sorrow would be a betrayal to those who have died or perhaps finding consolation in the identity of someone who is bereft.

That seems to be the exception, though; most people find a way to move through grief to a new normal—not the same as what once was, but good in a different way.

After their dinner, several members of the bereavement group reported that they had fun. One man brought each of them a loaf of bread from his daughter’s bakery. Small acts of generosity can lift spirits and awaken hope.

What can you do today that will generate hope?

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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.

God-spirituality-mindfulness

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.

God-spirituality-mindfulness

~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.

God-spirituality-mindfulness

Easter joy

Every year for Lent, my parish distributes a daily reflection booklet that begins with a “plan your Lent” section. We are encouraged to spend some time with God discerning which Lenten disciplines will help us grow closer to God. Over the course of the forty days, there are reminders to check back on our “plan” to see if we are on track or if the plan needs to be tweaked.

That booklet is followed by an Easter version, with daily reflections for the fifty days of the Easter season. But there is no “plan” involved.

I recently read an article that suggested we Catholics are very good at Lent—the whole world can see our ashes to start the season and we share openly what we are giving up, etc.

But how are we at celebrating Easter? Can the world see that something has happened which makes us incredibly joyful and celebratory? Are we different because of Easter?

God-faith-prayer

For most of my twenties, I lived in southern Virginia, a minority Catholic in a sea of Southern Baptists. A woman from work once took me to a revival, where the preacher spent a fair amount of time talking about Catholics. That seemed a bit odd to me because I could not recall ever hearing a Catholic priest talk about Southern Baptists.

This preacher wanted his audience to know that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection and were, therefore, not saved.

Afterward, I asked my companion why the preacher thought Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

“Crucifixes,” she said.

What?

She explained that having crosses with the body of Christ still on them was proof that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

That memory returned to me as I pondered this article about how Catholics celebrate Easter and made me question my own response to the resurrection.

The disciplines of Lent are so clear—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But what marks the Easter season?

Reflecting on the past two weeks, I can honestly say that I have not been singing Alleluia every day, and I doubt that anyone would say I have been more joyful these past two weeks or that there is any discernible difference in me.

Why is that? And what would need to change to make this time more joyful?

Throughout the Easter season, we hear stories of the early Church community, about how Jesus’ disciples preached boldly and cured the sick. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how these super-excited Christians prayed together and cared for one another, sharing everything they had and being especially mindful of those most vulnerable among them.

Perhaps prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the disciplines of Easter, but instead of being done from a position of penitence, they are carried out in a spirit of freedom, joy and deep gratitude.

The early Christians were dramatically changed by Jesus’ resurrection; they embraced a completely new way of living. I wonder how open I am to a new way of living.

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Unconventional grief

In Chapter four of A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Mending Loss and Sorrow,” Jake Owensby introduced me to the term “unconventional grief.”

            “Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury of mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table. This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death…unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger” (Page 56).

I was familiar with the concept.

In 2002, my friend Jim did something completely out of character. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim?” I asked and then added, “You must have a brain tumor.” He blamed his action on being tired, but I was not convinced.

Jim was a man of routine. He was predictable, dependable.

So when he acted oddly on that day in 2002, I knew something was wrong.

And from then on, he began to act out of character more frequently—until he eventually became a new person whose life looked significantly different from his old life. His old routines were replaced by things that had once held no interest for him.

One day, I compiled a list with two columns—Old Jim and New Jim—to show him how he had changed. He looked at the sheet of paper and agreed he did not do things he had once done but could not seem to understand why it was an issue. It was as if his brain could not process the information.

And he refused to see a doctor.

By 2006, Old Jim was pretty much gone, and I was left with New Jim. And although the loss was real, I did not know how to grieve it.

Five years later, Jim was diagnosed with glioblastoma—brain cancer.

I described Old Jim and New Jim to the neurosurgeon and asked if this tumor could have caused the change. He explained that the glioblastoma had only been growing for three to four weeks. “But,” he added, “There is something in his right front lobe that is not glioblastoma and that could be a slow-growing tumor that has been there a long time.” He asked if there was a history of benign brain tumors in Jim’s family. In fact, Jim had an uncle who died from complications from benign brain tumor surgery.

I believe that every curse has a blessing. Glioblastoma was definitely a curse, but throughout Jim’s illness, we experienced many blessings. The greatest blessing, though, was that the treatments that were entirely ineffective on the glioblastoma somehow returned Jim’s brain to its pre-2002 condition. Old Jim came back!

I grieved Jim’s death, but have only recently begun to get in touch with those lost years, that time of unconventional grief.

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Waiting for God

I know best how God is working in my life by looking back. In the present moment, God’s guidance and actions may not be as clear as when I pause and look back. So at the end of every year, I take some time to re-read my journals, and I take note of any themes or directions.

At the beginning of last year’s journal, I jotted down some quotes from Isaiah and 1 Corinthians and then I wrote, “What if I lived every moment as a God moment? As if I was waiting for God to come to my door?”

As I read those words, I was actually waiting for some friends to come to brunch, sitting in anticipation of their knock at the door.

What if, I thought, I really lived in that kind of anticipation of God’s intervening in my life?  If I knew with such certainty that God was about to show up? That God was about to knock on the door?

My word for this year is awareness and these questions seem to invite me to a deeper reflection on my relationship with God and my openness to God’s presence in my life.

  • How aware am I of God’s presence in my everyday life?
  • How attentive am I to God’s promptings?
  • How often do I offer up prayers of thanksgiving or petition throughout the day?

I want to start this new year with my focus more firmly fixed on God and the way God calls me to live. I know that will mean some changes, and I pray for the grace to be attentive and the courage to act.

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Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

 

 

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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