Tag Archives: openness

Be a Joseph

Our Christmas homily included the advice: Don’t be an innkeeper; be a Joseph.

The innkeeper in the Nativity story, the guy who said there was no room and turned Joseph and Mary out, was probably a realist—all his rooms were filled (Luke 2:7). Granted, he may have been inundated with people seeking shelter because of the census so he had no empty rooms, but the priest wondered if the innkeeper had considered all his options? Had he thought of giving up his bed so that a pregnant woman could rest comfortably?

We don’t know. Maybe another pregnant woman had arrived earlier. Maybe…. Well, we just don’t know. The story handed down to us is not a first-person account, so we can only guess at what really happened that night.

The more important thing to consider, though, are our own actions.

We don’t have to go far to find people in need, people facing difficulties, struggling with illness or life’s challenges.

How are we like the innkeeper, turning people away when we feel we are at our limit and they are asking us to make room for them?   

Do we do things a certain way because we have always done them that way? Are we so focused on one course of action that we cannot see alternatives?

When life seems full, do we shut the door and say enough? Or do we make room for one more?

Compare that to Joseph, who had already made up his mind to divorce Mary, until he had a dream suggesting a different course of action. Then he pivots and does as the angel in the dream instructed (Matthew 1:19-24).

I wondered if the innkeeper might have had a dream that night after turning Joseph and Mary away, a dream when an angel told him to go find Joseph and Mary and offer them his bed. But upon waking from the dream, he only said, “I had the weirdest dream last night,” and went about his day as usual. Haven’t most of us done that?

We are all invited to change course from time to time, to reframe a situation, get a different perspective.


Can we be like Joseph and be willing to rethink our decisions, to make new decisions based on new information? Can we be guided by the whispers of the Spirit when we feel a nudge to reach out to someone, to offer assistance or comfort? Can we hear the voice of God in our dreams and gain insight into a new direction for our lives?

As I review my journals from this year and remember different events, I am aware of how often I am like the innkeeper, choosing to be comfortable rather than stretching to meet another’s need.

My friend Steve (who died ten years ago) used to start each year by choosing a word or phrase to guide him through the year, something that the Spirit had whispered to him.

Be a Joseph is my phrase for 2023.


I woke up this morning feeling the color blue.

Not a dark, foreboding shade like a stormy sky

nor a light, powdery color like the baby blue blanket

I am knitting for my niece,

but a lovely medium hue,

like the cornflower blue on the bedroom walls.

The color suffused me, filling me with

a sense of calm and optimism.

This was a new sensation, this feeling filled with a color, and

I wonder if it was a reaction to a dream that I do not remember or

if it is an indication of something to come.

Or could it be that now free from the responsibilities that once filled my life,

I have tapped into some new way of seeing, a different way of knowing.


On retreat–pondering my blessings

The weather while I was on retreat was perfect for spending time outdoors, and the retreat center has beautiful grounds—grassy areas, a labyrinth, and trails through a wooded area.

The labyrinth at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House

I had not been on retreat here in two years and was startled by the number of fallen trees in the woods. The undergrowth was so dense I wondered how deer could make their way through, and then I wondered what undergrowth might be preventing me from moving forward. What is tripping me up?

Time on silent retreats is different from daily life in that there is nowhere to go and not much to do. A schedule develops around meals, Mass, meeting with a spiritual director once a day, and prayer times.

Retreat time allows for being able to stay with one image, idea, word or phrase for a whole day—or two or three; there is no need to move on. Rather retreats invite and encourage dwelling with words and images, letting the richness surface, and then going deeper.

On the third day of retreat, I woke up with the words of the Magnificat running through my mind, and I wrote this prayer in my journal, noting which words or phrases created some reaction in me. I prayed the words as though they were my own, as though I was the one offering up this prayer from my life experience, as Mary once offered it when she was visiting her cousin Elizabeth.

On one of my walks, I stopped by a statue of Mary and sat on the bench facing Mary. I played out the scene of Mary visiting Elizabeth and heard Elizabeth ask, “Who am I…?”

Statue of Mary at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House

Who am I? I asked, that I have been so blessed. I thought of how many times I have said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world,” because of all the wonderful opportunities I have had.

A litany of blessings started coming to mind, those experiences that were seemingly beyond the scope of possibility for a poor girl from the east side of Detroit.

For example, I was one of five people on a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, when the Basilica was closed (the Basilica closes when the Pope celebrates Mass on the Square).

I was one of three people on retreat in a cottage on the coast of the Irish Sea.

I was the only person on retreat in a hermitage on the grounds of a monastery in the desert, being directed by priest who has published books about spiritual writing.

I was one of three people on a night safari in Kruger Park in South Africa, which included a barbeque in the bush, complete with cloth napkins and candlelight (and armed guards watching out for lions).

I was one of eleven people on the shores of the Hudson Bay, 150 miles south of Churchill, Manitoba, watching polar bears migrate.

The list goes on and on.

Who am I that God has so richly blessed me?

What we hear

In the early days of our friendship, Ted asked me to go out for dinner. The conversation went something like this:

“You probably don’t want to…you will probably say ‘no,’ but would you like to go to dinner with me?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s ok,” he said. “I didn’t think you would want to.”

“Ted, I said ‘yes,’” I countered, but he could not hear me. He was so certain I would say “no” that he could not hear my “yes.”

Over the next thirty years, Ted and I had many dinners together—always as friends.

He often returned to that initial conversation, saying, “Remember when I asked you out and you said, ‘no’?” I would remind him, “I said ‘yes.’” It became something of a joke among our friends, like a scene in a pantomime, because he loved to retell the story, “I asked Madeline out once and she said ‘no.’” They would say, “She said ‘yes.’”

That memory came back to me the other day when I was thinking about how open I am to hear God. I wonder if I predisposed to hear a message that may not be the message God is sending or if I shut down before something has a chance to take root. I sometimes wonder if I am exasperating God with all the times I say, “yes, but…” in the same way Ted’s retelling of our first-date conversation could exasperate me.

I know I can jump to a conclusion that shuts God out of the process, perhaps because of negative messages I have heard about what I can and cannot do, my low self-esteem, fears, anxieties, past failures, etc.

God asks us to try and try again, even when we don’t succeed at first or second or third. God asks for persistence (like the story of the widow who kept pestering the judge in Luke 18:1-8) and openness (let those who have ears hear, Matthew 11:15) to hear what God is saying.

Often these blockages are blind spots—we don’t even see them. What can help us become aware of our blind spots is to listen to what others might see in us and say about us.

Those conversations can be difficult to have. I remember the first time someone tried to tell me I was smart and capable. I thanked him, but he could tell I did not believe him, so he repeated it. “I heard you,” I said. “No, you didn’t,” he replied, and then he told me again that I was smart and capable. He could see my discomfort, because smart and capable were not words I associated with myself.

That conversation was the beginning of my questioning what I believed about myself and trying to see myself as God sees me.


I don’t know how Ted and I would have gotten on romantically (mutual friends suggest we would have had a rocky relationship because we were both independent and strong-willed), but we never had the chance to try.

Love is our destiny

Every day brings us holy moments,

chances to glimpse unconditional love and

unlimited forgiveness.

We only need look for them,

be open to them,

expect them.

If we are looking elsewhere,

if our hearts are closed or we are

expecting an insult or betrayal,

we might miss these gifts,

these moments of grace.

Look up with anticipation of seeing beauty,

and then bring that beauty in.

Let it touch your heart and soften any hard edges.

We were meant to love and be loved,

as much as fish were meant to swim and birds to fly.

Love is our destiny.

Becoming who I am meant to be

My word for the year is trust, and I have been weaving that word into my prayer and meditation.

I desire to grow in trust, and I have issues with trusting.

It is a conundrum. I want to trust, and I am afraid to trust.

As I considered Lent and where God may be inviting me to grow in trust, this question came to me: Am I limiting God by holding onto what feels safe?

I know that trust involves a great deal of letting go, but this question presented my lack of trust and my fear of letting go in a different way. This question involves how God acts through me.

When my friend Jim had brain cancer, we spent a good deal of time at the New Jersey shore. Jim would look out at the ocean and say, “Look how big our God is.” And then he would add, “Think big thoughts.”

Looking out over the ocean, it is easy to see vastness and openness. It is easy to imagine a God big enough to create not only the ocean but the sky above. It is easy to think big thoughts.

But I don’t live by the ocean, and my outside horizon is limited by houses and trees.

Here, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, the sameness of life, the smallness of life. Here it is easy to fall back into old beliefs about my inadequacies and to narrow my worldview.

I have tried to pay attention to when I am limiting my vision, when I am living and acting out of fear instead of trust, when I am living small instead of living large.

And in that awareness, I can see how often I choose to stick with what has been, rather than to risk something new; to cling to old habits and beliefs that feel safe in their familiarity, rather than let go of the old to make room for something new.

My Lenten question reminds me that when I live out of a small place, a place of fear or stinginess, I am not just limiting myself, but limiting how God interacts in my world.

I am continually tempted to play it safe, to stick with what is familiar—and God keeps inviting me to live larger, to step outside of what is known and familiar. God invites me into the great unknown. How scary that can be!

Trust me, God says. I know the plans I have for you (Jeremiah 29:11).

Again and again, I am invited to shed what has held me back and to become who I am meant to be.

Am I limiting God by holding onto what feels safe? The answer is yes. The follow-up question is, what needs to change so I can move from fear to trust?

Are you thinking big thoughts? Living large? Or do your fears hold you back? What keeps you from becoming the person you were created to be?

God, turn me toward you

Lent is coming, and I find myself pondering where I am being invited to grow. A couple of recent dreams and one of my poems seem to be offering some insight.

For many years, I was in a dream group, meeting regularly with a couple of friends to share our dreams. I believe that God speaks to me through my dreams in the same way God spoke to people during Biblical times, so I try to pay attention to my dreams.

Belonging to a dream group helped me to be disciplined about recording my dreams, and the questions and insights of the other group members helped me gain understanding of the messages in my dreams.

I also learned from those groups that sharing dreams makes me vulnerable because dreams often reveal something of which I am unaware in my waking life; dreams uncover my blind spots and reveal what is hidden to me.

I recently had a couple of dreams that seemed significant because I remembered the emotions I felt while dreaming and a great deal of detail. I wrote out and emailed one dream to a former dream group member and asked for her insights. After a first reading, she asked if I was resisting some change in my life.

Upon reflection, I could see that I was. I am ready for a change and also fearful about it.


And then last week, a comment about one of my poems connected with the dream I had sent my friend.

The poem was about encountering a homeless person in a park, and the comment was from someone who had had a similar experience. But the truth is that I had not encountered a homeless person in a park.

So why, I asked myself, was I writing about a homeless person? Was this really about some part of me or my life being represented by a homeless person? The poem contained the same kind of hidden message as a dream might, and I realized how my writing can sometimes come from that same place within—that place that can reveal my blind spots.

God is doing something new, I thought, and using different ways to show me what it is.


Upon reflection, I can see that I am nurturing a tiny spark inside me, barely a flicker, and oh so vulnerable. It is like the vulnerability of being homeless—uncertain, unfocused, on the fringe. I fear the unknown-ness of this tiny spark.

And at the same time, I am drawn to it, wanting to protect it and watch it grow into something bigger and brighter. I want to acknowledge this spark is there, waiting patiently for me to notice it and to anticipate what it might become.

God speaks to me in many ways—through people, nature, dreams and writing—and in every moment, wishing to communicate with me. I need only to be open.


Art and spirituality

Art is an important part of my prayer life, and my prayer space reflects my love of art. Two pictures hang on the wall, icons sit on shelves, and I change out other pieces for different seasons or because of some movement in my spiritual life.

At the beginning of Advent, my spiritual director gave me a print of The Road to Bethlehem by Fritz von Uhde. I framed it and placed it by my Advent candles. Throughout Advent, this picture invited me to imagine the challenges of Mary and Joseph’s trek and reminded me of people on difficult journeys today. The picture invited me to reflect on these questions: What journey am I on? What path am I following? How am I helping others who are on difficult journeys?

The Road to Bethlehem, by Fritz von Uhde

Another painting in my prayer space is Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. It is from a larger painting by Ludovico Brea called the Crucifixion.

Crucifixion, by Ludovico Brea

Mary Magdalene is my patron saint; my name is the English version of hers, and she is the person in the Bible with whom I feel the strongest connection. She epitomizes for me what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This picture of Mary Magdalene reminds that that even when others have fled, I am to remain.


Contemplating Mary Magdalene hugging the cross, I am led to reflect on my own relationship with suffering. Am I faithful to those who suffer? Do I lean into the cross or do I back away? How do I relate to my own pain?

The Windsock Visitation, by Brother Mickey McGrath, depicts that moment when Mary visited Elizabeth and the infant leaped in Elizabeth’s womb.

The Windsock Visitation, by Mickey McGrath, OSFS

I love the bright colors and the Jane de Chantal quote, “This is the place of our delight and rest.” I resonate with the swirls in the two women’s bellies—I am a gut person and make most of my decisions based on a gut reaction.

This print reminds me to pay attention to what swirls in my gut—to my reactions to people and events—and to be aware of new life being created.

The happiness evident in the two women’s faces suggests pure joy, and this picture asks me: Where do I see new life around me or within me? Whom do I embrace with sheer joy? To whom am I bringing hope? From whom am I receiving hope?

Art offers multiple entryways into the spiritual life. I can look at a picture for years, and then notice a small detail that had been hidden. The Windsock Visitation has hung on my wall for the past five years, but only recently have I noticed a picture in the upper left corner.

Art invites me to look again and again at what seems familiar and to see something new.