Tag Archives: Jesus

Creating space for the spiritual

My grandparents came from Poland, and my parents spoke Polish as their first language. They learned English in school but spoke Polish at home. Their religious training—what my grandparents handed on to them about the beliefs, customs and the rituals of their faith—was also in Polish.

Like many people who learn English as their second language, my parents spoke with an accent, and they were self-conscious about it. I don’t know what kind of ridicule they endured, but it was enough that they did not want their children to be treated as they had been, so they decided not to teach us Polish. They wanted their children to fit in and be like other Americans.

But because my parents’ faith was expressed in Polish, my religious instruction was limited to what I learned at weekly catechism classes.

I was not aware of the impact of this until I became an adult and began to see how little I knew about my faith. “I missed that lesson,” was my common response when other Catholics spoke about matters of faith. There was so much I did not know.

I did not even know how to pray the rosary!

At some point in my young adult life, though, I realized that my ignorance of Church teachings had not gotten in the way of my developing a relationship with God.

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From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in some special way. I seemed to see things from a slightly different angle than others, and I drew conclusions that left adults baffled. My father used to say, “You didn’t learn that in this house,” when I would offer an opinion that was shaped by my relationship with God.

Through the Sunday readings, I had gotten to know Jesus’ story well enough to feel close to him. He became a brother to me.

I loved the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion. Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane was my anguish. His cry to God—why have you abandoned me?—was also my cry.

Jesus, like me, was an innocent victim.

Jesus got me in a way no one else in my life did, and I was so grateful for this connection. I felt like Jesus saw me and understood what I was going through, and I leaned into that relationship.

I could talk to Jesus about what was happening in my life, and I shared my fears and anxieties with him, knowing he was not going to tell anyone. I trusted him completely.

My spiritual life grew out mystery and grace, and my lived experience of Jesus drew me closer to God.

I began to go deep within myself to that space at my core where God dwelt, where God’s spirit lived as a small flame. By the time I was a teen, I could sit in silent meditation for long periods of time, happily connecting with Jesus and the Spirit of God within me.

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The gift of retreat

“What do you do all day?” several people asked before I left for my week-long, silent retreat. These were Christians who regularly attend church. There were asking out of curiosity; none of them had ever gone on a retreat.

All of them had gone away for other kinds of events—camping weekends or workshops related to a hobby—dedicated time spent on something they love. So why not retreats? Why not dedicate an extended time to God?

I asked my spiritual director about this during my recent retreat.

She suggested people may have a harsh image of God, so the idea of spending an extended time with God might not be appealing.

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My first retreat was in my early twenties. A man at work invited me to go on a retreat because he could see I was serious about my faith (I attended daily Mass and weekly Bible study, taught Sunday School, etc.).

I balked at the idea. Like those who were curious about my retreat, I found it difficult to imagine what I would do for a whole weekend.

I expressed my reservations to him, and he explained how the weekend would go. It was a structured retreat with talks and small-group sharing.

The word “sharing” was the kiss of death; I did not share!

My hesitancy about going on this retreat became outright resistance. Thanks, but no thanks.

My issue was not a negative image of God, but a negative image of myself, so talking about the ways I had let God down had no appeal.

This guy was persistent, though, and I finally caved in and agreed to go. My reluctance must have been obvious, because he insisted on driving me to the retreat. It was as if he had been reading my thoughts: “I will go, stay for the opening prayer and dinner, and then bolt.”

Beyond the sharing thing, I also feared I would have little in common with the others at this all-women’s retreat and that they would judge me. I was divorced, and in Catholic circles in the 1970’s, that was uncommon enough, but a divorced woman on retreat! I imagined lots of tsk-tsks.

But I allowed him to pick me up and drive me to the retreat center.

I learned a lot that weekend—about God, myself and the other people on that retreat. I found the women to be helpful and supportive—not judgmental. They seemed genuinely interested in me and my well-being, and no one tried to force me to share more than I was comfortable sharing.

I also learned that God provides—although most of the women were married, there was one other single woman, and we immediately connected.

In the end, I was glad I overcame my fears and went.

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It was a few years before I went on another retreat, but when I did, it was with anticipation instead of resistance. And then I started going every year.

As with any relationship, spending quality time with God is a gift.

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See my wounds

While praying with the resurrection stories this week—scripture passages I have read dozens of times, heard preached about every year and thought I knew so well—I had an “aha” moment.

The idea that Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, that his death had a redemptive quality is not new.

This year, though, the image of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples after his resurrection took on a different meaning for me.

Recently, I have been pondering sharing more of my wounds. I have written pieces that expose parts of my story that have been long kept secret. Although I have been through years of therapy to help me get past the shame, I can still be crippled by it. Don’t tell are two words that reverberate in my mind and prevent me from full disclosure.

I admire others who get past shame and tell all and am amazed by those who seem to have escaped shame all together.

But I have not been able to shake off shame. I still cringe whenever I reveal a detail of my past, when I speak of something I have been warned not to tell.

Reading the resurrection stories this year and imagining the scene of Jesus standing with his fearful disciples sparked a new insight.

Jesus got his wounds in a shameful fashion. He was mistreated by his own religious leaders and crucified as a common criminal.

The disciples scattered rather than stand at the foot of the cross and watch the man they respected be humiliated and disgraced. He had been their leader, but now he was broken—not powerful at all, but humbly submitting to ridicule, abuse and death.  

And yet, just days later, there he was, standing in their midst and inviting them to look at his wounds.

For Jesus, they were not marks of shame, but rather signs of victory. He was proud to show the marks of his suffering.

The disciples had been cowering in a locked room when Jesus appeared and invited them to look at his wounds.

What was clearer to me this year is that if Jesus could endure humiliation and overcome shame, so could his disciples. He was inviting them (and me) to shake off shame, to convert what looked like weakness into power, to break free of the bonds that kept them in hiding, behind locked doors.

Jesus broke through their fears and invited them to spread the word that humiliating treatment did not define or limit him, but rather he converted that treatment into true freedom.

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Fear drives people to abuse power and victimize vulnerable people.

By showing his wounds as signs of triumph over the fears of others, Jesus was offering the ultimate freedom. He did not let what had happened to him to limit or define him, and he invites me to do the same.

Showing his wounds was the exclamation point on his message that fear is useless and that trust in God leads to freedom.     

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Surrender

The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.

After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”

Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?

Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.

My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.

What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?

We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.

How do we make sense of it?

In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?

I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.

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Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?

I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.

Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.

I desire

A friend and her husband recently joined a new group at their church for couples who are seeking to deepen their relationship with one another and with God.

The monthly meetings include a meal, Scripture, prayer and sharing.

My friend told me she and her husband want to pray together every day and are hoping the support of this group will help them to deepen their faith individually and as a couple.

As I listened to her talk about this group and what she and her husband hope to gain, the phrase I desire popped into my mind.

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I think that many people can live on the surface of their spiritual lives, perhaps attending Sunday Church services, maybe saying grace at meal times—but not giving much attention to God the rest of the week.

I know I can fall into that trap. I can get caught up in the details of work and daily life—and fail to step back to notice where God is trying to connect with me. I can shift my focus from God to my routines—and lose sight of what really matters in life. Busyness can keep me occupied and distracted from tuning in to God.

And then I remember the words of St. Augustine: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Or a Scripture reading or words of some wise person pop into my mind, and I know God is nudging me to shift my focus and inviting me to live from a deeper place.

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Jesus tells us that a relationship with God can be quite demanding. Stories of narrow gates (Matthew 7:13) and not looking back once we have decided to follow Jesus (Luke 9:62) practically dare us to take a step closer. And then there is taking up our cross daily (Luke 9:23) and the actual cross of Jesus.

A relationship with God can be a daunting challenge. And yet…

If, as St. Augustine said, God made us for God, it is only natural that we continue to turn and return to God time and again.

Every year, Lent extends the invitation to step back from my daily life, look at where I am in my relationship with God and realign my priorities. Lent is an ideal time to recall that I am dependent on God and that my true self—my best self—is attentive to God throughout the day.

I desire to be in right relationship with God and to be open to new opportunities to grow in that relationship.

I believe that God desires to be in relationship with me, to change my heart, heal my brokenness and make me whole. God desires that I open my heart so that my attitudes and actions can be more loving, forgiving and accepting.

My friend reminded me of my desire to be more attuned to God—and of God’s desire for me to be more attentive to what I desire.

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Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

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The truth will set you free

The House of Mirrors at the Michigan State Fair fascinated me as a child. I loved how the slightest movement could cause great distortion. I could go from tall and skinny to short and fat with just one step.

In a way, these distortions reflected my everyday life, which could shift from peaceful to chaotic in a moment. Except, I was not the one creating the chaos; I just had to live in it and learn to keep silent about it.

So I lived on two planes—my interior life, where I knew the truth of my life, and my outer life where I pretended not to.

Of course, holding tight to secrets caused me a great deal of anxiety and shame. I worried that someone would realize I was a fraud—that the life I projected outwardly was nothing like the life I actually lived.

I felt trapped within walls of lies and deceptions.

I have had more than one conversation with Jesus about how knowing the truth would set me free (John 8:32), because that was not my experience. I knew the truth, and I was not free.

Only recently have I come to understand that I need one more step to be free—I need to speak my truth in order to be truly free.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have been experimenting with speaking my truth through this blog, continually revealing more and more of who I am and what I have experienced. It has been very freeing and has given me the confidence to continue to reveal my story.

My hope is to get to a place past shame, where childhood secrets have no hold on me, where I can see myself as God sees me and accept myself without judgment. Step by step, story by story.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have also realized that it is not only traumatic events that I have kept secret. Recently, I shared a story of a Good Samaritan who helped me after a car accident. When I get to the part of the story where this man paid for my car to be towed, I am overcome with emotion and tears fill my eyes.

Why would I cry in recalling an act of great kindness? And why have I not talked about this incident before?

I think my sense of unworthiness prevented me from telling it. I kept it secret because I felt unworthy to be so richly blessed, as if someone would challenge me—who are you to be treated so well? I knew I was not worthy and so I kept quiet.

But, in truth, my whole life has been filled with great blessings, with incidents of God’s abundant love being poured out on me.

I have only recently begun to share openly the good things God has done for me and the amazing way God has cared for me, and in doing so, am undoing my negative self-image.

I want to know my truth, to speak it and to be set free.