Tag Archives: l’Arche

Who is driving?

What more must I do? the rich young man asked Jesus. (Mark 10:17) That question has stayed with me since the beginning of Lent, popping up at random times throughout the day and often while I am praying.

The answer for the young man was to sell everything he had and give his money to the poor.

It seems that his possessions were a burden or a barrier which prevented him from being spiritually free. I am not rich, so I have been considering what other burdens or barriers prevent me from being spiritually free.

As I have been pondering the question these past few weeks, I have had greater clarity around the fact that I tend to focus on the doing part of the question. Do more, my inner critic prompts me. But God has often invited me to focus on being rather than doing, so maybe God is asking me to do less instead of doing more.

Perhaps I am being asked to silence my inner critic and step away from my need to achieve.

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Then I started reading Luke 11:14-23, Jesus was driving…. I did not get any further into the reading because an image of Jesus driving a car came to me. Funny—and not how I usually imagine Jesus. But, I let the picture emerge.

Jesus driving; I am a passenger.

What kind of passenger would I be? Would I be giving Jesus directions? Suggesting alternative routes? Knowing a faster way?

Could I trust Jesus to drive? Let him choose the route and the destination? Could I just enjoy the ride?

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A few days ago, something prompted the memory of my decision to move to l’Arche. When I made the decision, I didn’t think of l’Arche as a one-year volunteer stint, but as a way of life. It was the radical commitment I was seeking, the community I could see myself in forever. I had incredible clarity about being called to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life.

But that was not what happened. l’Arche turned out not to be the perfect fit for me—or me for l’Arche. My need to be in control and to be doing made me ill-suited.

It turned out that working in non-profit organizations was a better fit for my personality, giving me the kind of time and space I needed to grow in self-awareness. In the nonprofit world, being a doer is highly valued. Plus, my need to control and deep-seated stubbornness pushed me to accomplish things people said could not be done.

People praised me for what I achieve, and I loved hearing their praise.

A radio commercial for a local spa asks what would change if I really took care of myself (by spending an indulgent day there.)

I wonder what would change if I let Jesus drive the car, if I silenced my inner critic and focused more on being than doing. Perhaps I would be able to relax and enjoy the ride.

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Leaning into vulnerability

I recently heard an interview with a published poet. When asked about a poetry slam she had attended, she suggested that aspiring poets would benefit from reading poetry—”good poetry,” she said. She went on to suggest the same for writers of any genre—fiction, playwrights, biographers, etc. To improve one’s writing, she asserted, one needs to read what others have written in that genre.

Interesting idea.

Most of my reading is fiction. Occasionally, I will read a biography or historical fiction, and sometimes poetry, but the vast majority of my reading is fiction.

And, as much as I love to read fiction, I write nonfiction.

So this playwright’s comments about reading the genre that I write highlighted a disconnect in me. Her comments stayed with me for the next few days and I felt invited to look more closely at my reading habits.

In my twenties, I read some non-fiction, mainly self-help books, and I found books about adult children of alcoholics to be very helpful. But other nonfiction did not hold my attention. I remember reading The Road Less Traveled, by Scott Peck, and thinking, “I could have written this.”  He was telling me things I already knew, so what was the point of reading his book?

When I visited the l’Arche community where I would eventually live, I was carrying my copy of Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. I was about a third of the way through when I arrived. One of the assistants remarked, “Don’t bother reading the rest. You will be able to write it after you’ve been here a month.”

“A woman after my own heart,” I thought, although I did eventually finish reading the book.

As I pondered this disconnect between what I read and what I write, I had an aha moment.

By nature, I am a rather strong person (I am an eight on the Enneagram), and I tend to avoid vulnerability. The basic premise of self-help books is that I need help—that I am vulnerable.

Similarly with books about spirituality—reading them implies that I need help with my spirituality, which I know I do. But, for some reason, I am resistant to reading the very books that might help me.

Each book about spiritual or emotional growth invites me to lean into my brokenness and vulnerability, to let go of the façade of strength that I wear as armor, and I resist.

For many years, I felt God was inviting me to write about my spiritual life and the ways God has blessed me. I was resistant. And then a friend asked me to ghost write spiritual reflections for him. It was the perfect way for me respond to God, and I loved sharing how God had blessed me. After eight years of ghost-writing, I had the courage to start this blog.

Now it seems that God has expanded the invitation to include not only writing about my blessings, but also reading how God has blessed others.

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Travel light

Take nothing for the journey. Luke 9:3

This is the instruction Jesus gives his apostles as he sends them to preach the Kingdom of God, and it is what he tells us, too.

Take nothing for the journey.

Just thinking of beginning a trip with nothing—no money, no clothes, no food—causes me a bit of anxiety. Not even my driver’s license? Or cell phone?

Even when I go out for a short walk, I take a house key. But I can see how the house key connects me to what I have left behind and binds me to my house.

If I did not have my key, my house would be unlocked and I would worry about what I might find when I returned home. It would not be a very relaxing walk because I would constantly be worrying about what I had left and what I might find on my return home. Past and future, instead of being open to the present.

When I lived in l’Arche, two Jesuit seminarians lived with us for a few months. After l’Arche, their next step in formation was to make the kind of journey Jesus commands. They would be dropped off in Cleveland, Ohio, and would have to make their way home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin—with nothing for the journey.

They would have to rely on the generosity of strangers.

Both of these young men were a bit anxious about this upcoming adventure, which I could certainly understand.

Most people came to l’Arche with very little—a suitcase or backpack with clothes and maybe a few books—but I came with my car, and it was fully packed.

I had gotten rid of furniture and most of my books, but I just could not part with so many of my possessions. Pottery, cookbooks and gifts that held special significance got packed into the car. Even my sewing machine accompanied me to l’Arche. I did not travel light.

Living in l’Arche helped disencumber me, though—not necessarily of my material possessions, but rather of the emotional baggage that caused me to cling to material possessions. My overstuffed car was the symbol of how much emotional baggage I was dragging behind me and helped me understand how all that stuff held me back. It was as if I was pulling two-thousand pounds of emotional baggage along with me.

And that is another way to read Jesus’ instructions to take nothing for the journey. Jesus invites me to depend on him and to be free of unhealthy relationships and emotional dependence on others.

That kind of freedom is both attractive and somewhat scary. I find comfort in what is familiar—even if it is unhealthy—and stepping away from the familiar can be unsettling.

Every day, God invites me to take the first step of the journey of proclaiming God’s Kingdom, to leave everything behind and trust that God will provide for my needs—just like the first disciples and the Jesuit seminarians.

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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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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.

 

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Noticing what I notice

On the first day of my retreat last week, my director suggested that I spend some time noticing what I notice.

For much of that day I walked the grounds of the retreat center and practiced being present to what was in front of me. Little things caught my attention—the way a reed swayed in the gentle breeze; small shoots of green amid the dried-up, brown grasses; how ice formed along the edges of the creek; snow clinging to tree branches at odd angles; and the way three ducks huddled on the water with their heads tucked in for warmth (or maybe that is how they sleep?).

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The practice of noticing what I notice is a great way to slow down and focus. By the end of that first day, I had left my work and daily life behind me and had moved into a more meditative, prayerful space.

My friend Steve came to mind during one of my walks that first day. The previous week had marked the fourth anniversary of his death, and I welcomed this chance to spend time remembering what a blessing he was to me. Steve had been in a serious car/train crash when he was in college (he was in the car), and it was a miracle that he survived. He spent his life in deep appreciation that he was alive—and acute awareness that residual complications from the accident could claim his life at any time.

One gift of Steve’s accident was that he knew himself as totally dependent on God. His attitude toward life was open-handed—he was gentle with himself and others and did not take things too seriously.

I wondered which of my life experiences offers me that gift. What broken place within me reminds me of my total dependence on God? When had I been vulnerable and come out of the experience with a deeper appreciation for life?

One time I recall totally surrendering to God was after I left l’Arche. I had failed miserably as a l’Arche assistant, and my spirit was shattered. All my plans for spending the rest of my life in l’Arche were gone, and pride prevented me from returning to Philadelphia. My disappointment paralyzed me, and I could not see the way to rebuild my life.

In deep despair, I cried to my spiritual director, “I am falling apart!”

“No,” she said. “You are falling together.”

Her words jolted me. But I could see her point—I was already about as low as I could go; I had actually already fallen. My only hope was to give up the illusion that I was in control and surrender to God.

I recalled saying to God in resignation, “You hold all the cards!” It was both humbling and freeing.

As difficult as it was at the time, now it is a sweet memory that helped me connect with my friend Steve and God’s invitation to live more aware and open-handed, trusting in God.

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Through weakness to strength

“… sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” ~Jean Vanier

Safe spaces can be our comfort zones, those places that can give us a sense of control and security. Safe spaces can also describe the people we can trust with our deepest selves.

I recently read a book written by a friend about her volunteer work at a hospice. She wrote about some of the other people involved in the program—the Catholic sisters who ran the hospice, other volunteers and those who were dying. She wrote of the poverty of those dying, and she shared that this volunteer work had touched her and changed her.

What she did not describe, though, was what specifically had been touched in her by those who were dying—what inner poverty or brokenness connected with the poverty and brokenness of those who were dying.

Putting words to our wounds can be difficult, and it can make us feel vulnerable. We get plenty of practice saying, “I’m fine,” and much less practice admitting when we are not. Finding safe spaces where we can share openly and honestly can be a challenge.

As a young adult, I mistakenly shared my story with people who were not trustworthy and who used it against me. Then I retreated into my safe space where I shared with no one.

But at some point I realized that what I was calling a safe space was really just a place of fear, and staying there kept me from facing my wounds and allowing God’s love to heal me.

I was fortunate to find a therapist who helped me see that by staying locked in on myself I was neither safe nor free. I needed to step out of that space and start finding true safe spaces where I could name my weaknesses and difficulties.

Attending Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meetings helped a great deal. Sitting among others who had similar backgrounds created a foundation of trust. Once the foundation was established, trusting and sharing became easier.

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Living in l’Arche helped, too. I had gone there thinking I was going to help others, but God showed me that I was called me there to receive help more than to give it. The invitation of the Beatitudes and of l’Arche was to reveal my poverty—to myself as much as to others—and be blessed by it. By acknowledging my weakness, I came to understand that I was totally dependent on God.

God continues to invite me into deeper relationship so I can know my broken places, hidden crevices that are awaiting God’s healing touch. That touch releases me from my fear of being judged and allows me to speak of my vulnerability.

Like my friend who wrote the book, I went to l’Arche to help others but realized I was the one who was to be helped. My brokenness is my blessing and allowing others to see it is my healing.

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