Tag Archives: retreat

Leaning into vulnerability

The day after my neighbor Margaret came to mind while on retreat recently, I walked the labyrinth. At the center, I stopped and prayed for insight: Why had the memory of my pledge to Margaret come to mind?

The words from Psalm 89 came to me: “I have made a covenant with my chosen…”

I walked back through the labyrinth repeating those words.

I have made a covenant with my chosen.

What are you trying to tell me, God?

And then I remembered that when I was fifteen years old, I had said to myself, “One day I am going to write a book about my life, and it will start like this: From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in a special way.

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I didn’t know exactly what it meant that God had called me, how it had happened or why God had picked me, but I knew it is true. God had chosen me when I was eight years old.

At that early age, God had somehow made a covenant with me. And now, on retreat almost sixty years later, God was reminding me of that covenant.

The thing about the pledge I made to Margaret is that it was made with my full knowledge and consent. God’s covenant when I was eight was one-sided; God initiated it. I didn’t fully consent.

For many years, I was noncommittal about God. Having been chosen by God only seemed to make me different and somehow weird—I was the kid who loved going to church.

Church was my refuge. As I inhaled the smell of burning beeswax candles, I also breathed in the mystery of God’s grace. I loved the hushed quiet and the space to retreat into myself.

Inside church, I felt close to God. It was there that I experienced God’s desire to be in a relationship with me, where I heard God asking me to say yes to the covenant God initiated.

Inside church, I could be God’s but once outside, I did not know how to trust that relationship or to live it out.

While my fifteen-year-old self knew that something significant had happened to me when I was eight, my adult self has been clueless as to how that could be of interest. On retreat, God gave me an insight.

I went back to the first piece I posted on this blog more than six years ago. God is doing something new.

Much has changed over these past six years—new home in a new state, working in a near field, new friends.

But the most significant change is being vulnerable enough to share my story—with all its difficulties and traumas. I am learning to move beyond shame and to trust that the sky will not fall if I reveal something long kept secret.

My part of the covenant is to tell how God’s grace has infused my life and transformed pain into compassion, fear into trust.

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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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Change is inevitable

A former neighbor came to mind on the second night of my recent retreat.

Most Saturday mornings, Margaret and I would hang our laundry on the lines behind our rowhouses in Eddystone, PA. She lived three doors down from me, which was about forty feet away.

The first to empty a laundry basket would walk over to the other, and we would catch up on the past week.

Margaret lived a Christian life, and she inspired me.

My first Thanksgiving in Eddystone, both she and her husband were out of work, so I offered her the turkey I had gotten from the local grocery store. She thanked me—and then added it to a basket she was preparing for a neighbor. Margaret looked at the world through eyes of gratitude, and she always knew of someone whose needs were greater that her own.

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The memory that came to me, though, was about a pledge we had made one day as we chatted by the clothes lines. We vowed that we would stay in our homes and grow old as neighbors.

At the time, our neighborhood was changing. The last original owner was in her nineties, and although there were still some people who had grown up in Eddystone, more newcomers were moving in every year.

I had been one of those newcomers, so I did not mind others joining me. But for those nostalgic types, “new” usually meant “not like it used to be.”

I had listened to more than one neighbor complain about the new people moving in and “changing” the neighborhood. Pointing out that I was one of those new people did not stop their grumbling.

Margaret was different; she welcomed everyone and never complained about changes.

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I had no plans to move. I loved my house and the town, located near two expressways and only minutes from the airport. We had a grocery store, a couple of restaurants and our own public safety department. Why would I leave?

Then Margaret got pancreatic cancer in October 2010 and died six months later.

Our pledge was broken.

Three months after Margaret died, my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer. He died nine months later.

My pledge to Margaret and my friendship with Jim were major reasons for my living in Pennsylvania. With both of them gone, I decided to move home to Michigan to be near my family.

I don’t know why the memory of Margaret and our pledge came to me now.

Earlier that day, I had walked along the creek that flows through the retreat center’s grounds. I watched the water tumbling over rocks and around fallen trees. I listened to it gurgle as it rolled over itself—rushing on its way to a destination I could not see.

My life has felt a bit that way in recent years—tumbling and rolling, taking me to new destinations.

Perhaps the memory was meant to remind me of the inevitability of change.

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Growing in self-awareness

ring the Day of Reflection I recently facilitated, I introduced the volunteers to an adaptation of the Johari Window—four panes of a window designed to increase self-awareness.God-vulnerability-faithI suggested that their year of service is a wonderful opportunity for them to come to deeper self-knowledge because of the spiritual framework of their community and their service to marginalized people—two invitations to touch their own vulnerabilities.

Preparing for this day, I remembered a break-through in my own self-awareness journey. It happened a few years after college, when I was the caretaker for my university’s guest house.

Fr. Shawn Tracy was the director of Campus Ministry, and he was also a leader in the Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC) retreat movement.

HEC is a weekend retreat where people who have physical disabilities come together with able-bodied people to pray, ponder and celebrate their lives. HEC creates a prayerful atmosphere for people to reflect on their lives, to learn from one another and to support one another in a lively celebration of community.

The planning meetings were held at the guest house where I lived, and I got to know those involved with HEC—and they got to know me.

By the time I went on my first HEC retreat, the planning team knew me quite well, and Fr. Shawn asked me if I would give one of the weekend’s talks. I agreed.

I don’t remember the topic of my talk or even what I said; what I do remember was Fr. Shawn’s introduction of me to the group.

It was a fall day and dark clouds skidded across the sky. Occasionally, the sun would break though, filling the meeting room with bright light. God-vulnerability-faithIn his introduction of me, Fr. Shawn compared me to the sky that day. He talked about how I could be like the dark clouds gathering and casting a gray pall over everything, and then, suddenly, like the sun, break out in brightness. He talked about the mystery of me, the complexity of me and my passion for life.

Hearing myself described in those terms was like a thunder bolt. How could he see all that in me when I saw none of it?

Was I really that tumultuous? Was I a complicated mystery, a passionate person?

Rather than give my talk, I wanted to go outside, stand under that tempestuous sky and contemplate the words and images he used to describe me.

I knew that I could be moody, and I knew I kept secrets—two things I saw as negative. But Fr. Shawn made them sound appealing. It was as though my moodiness and secretiveness invited him want to get to know me and understand me.  I remember thinking, “He cares.”

After that introduction, I had a difficult time pulling myself together and giving my talk. As soon as I was finished, I went outside and stood under that dark sky and anticipated the breaks of sunlight. This is me, I thought, mysterious, complex and passionate.

 

 

 

 

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Just write

“You are a reluctant prophet,” the retreat director said during our first meeting.

“I have heard that before,” I replied.

Months earlier, after reading his book Simply Soul Stirring—Writing as a Meditative Practice, I had written to Father Dorff and asked if he would help me with my writing. I had explained that God was inviting me to write, and that I was resistant. But now, I wanted to move against my resistance.

He agreed to a seven-day writing retreat. I flew to New Mexico, prepared to spend a week in a hermitage, writing.God-resistance-vulnerabilityAfter talking with me for a short time in that first session, Father Dorff said, “No more books on writing or workshops or retreats. Just write.”

That was seven years ago.

Many of my retreats before that one dealt with my writing—or not writing. I had consistently heard the invitation to write, but I had resisted.

In my early twenties, people started suggesting I should write a book.

I think it was because I worked for the FBI, and I seemed an unlikely FBI employee. I was willful, obstinate and outspoken—not exactly bureaucrat material. Plus, I had strong beliefs about social justice.

After the FBI, people suggested I write about my work with people who were socially marginalized, and then l’Arche.

But I did not ever see any of that as book worthy.

It wasn’t until my late fifties that I actually submitted an essay that was published (or rather podcast). And then I submitted another to the local newspaper for the opinion page. My two published pieces.

And I started this blog.

I don’t know what it is about writing a book, but I know I am resistant.

Moving against my resistance has been a major part of my spiritual life for as long as I have had a spiritual life. God continually invites me to move past rigid rules and self-esteem issues.

I just don’t see myself as an author, even if God and other people may.

So what, I wonder, would I have to say that could fill a book?God-resistance-vulnerability

Still, I want to move against my resistance, especially my resistance to sharing my story.

Last year, I heard about an author who conducts memoir-writing workshops, and I thought maybe I could attend one of her workshops. While checking out her calendar for the upcoming year, Father Dorff’s words come back to me. “No more…workshops. Just write.” Ugh!God-resistance-vulnerabilityMy week in New Mexico helped me to be more comfortable writing and sharing my story. Father Dorff received my story without judgment. He accepted my vulnerability and encouraged me to continue to be open to where God was leading me.

Father Dorff suggested that I allow God to direct not only what I write but also who reads it. He encouraged me to let go of controlling the process and let God be the director.

So, for now, I continue to blog and try to be more open to next steps.

 

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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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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