Tag Archives: hope

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

 

 

 

hope-grief-cancer

Giving voice to grief

Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:

Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.

But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:

Oh I swear to you

I’ll be there for you

This is not a drive by

(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)

A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.

Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.hope-grief-cancerEvery time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.

In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:

 Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….

(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)

and

What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes
….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….

(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)hope-grief-cancerDavid’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.

Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.hope-grief-cancer

 

 

 

 

God-spirituality-vulnerability

Does it bring you joy?

Does it bring you joy? Someone suggested asking this question when paring down my possessions.

After some pondering, I realized that when considering holding onto or getting rid of some possession, I am more apt to ask myself, would letting it go make me feel guilty?

I have been incredibly blessed by generous people throughout my life, and my house has lots of objects I received as gifts. I imagine if I had bought all of those things, it would be easier to let go of them, but so much of what I own has a story and a memory connected to it.

Is it possible to hold onto the memory and the story—and let go of the object?God-spirituality-joyMany years ago, I read a book about holding onto the gifts of retreat.

Retreats can be sacred moments in life, creating space to step out of daily routines, clear my mind of everyday worries, and focus on God and God’s will for me. Retreats offer the opportunity to get some distance and perspective, to look at how I am living and to consider any needed course corrections.

While on retreat, I often talk with God about what in my life needs to go—usually old fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts.God-spirituality-joyHolding onto those insights from retreat once I am back in my daily routine can be a challenge. Daily prayer helps. Regular meetings with a spiritual director also help. This book suggested asking these questions about everyday situations:

  • Is this what I really want?
  • Will this matter tomorrow? In ten years? At the end of my life?
  • What do I think? feel? need? want?

The second set of questions has been the easiest for me to answer because I can see how insignificant many everyday occurrences really are. These questions have helped me let go of a great deal of hurt and anger. How much energy am I going to give to something that really has very little long-term significance?

The other questions, though, continue to challenge me. Like the question about what brings me joy, asking what I want or need seems somewhat foreign to me. It must be the way I was raised—spend very little time or thought on my own needs; focus more on the needs of others.  This is also the message I take from the Bible.

Of course, I know that I do have wants and needs, and over the course of my life, I have come to see how much healthier I am when I get in touch with them.

So, what is it that brings me joy? The objects in my home? Or the memories attached to them?

It is definitely the memories that remind me how blessed I have been.

Last year, I committed to writing a “love” letter every day in February—a note to someone who had blessed my life and brought me joy. I called it twenty-eight days of love. I thank I will do that again.God-spirituality-joy

 

God-friends-cancer

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

 

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