Tag Archives: retreat

retreat-kindness-God

Being kind

Every year, I facilitate a session for a group of long-term volunteers as part of their Fall Day of Reflection. We begin the day with a prayer service that the organizers call a “milling prayer.”  A variety of quotes, pasted onto colorful construction paper, are scattered across the floor. The participants then “mill” around the room, reading each of the quotes and picking up the one that resonates with him or her.

This year, Anne Lamott’s words caught my attention: “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Perhaps the idea of being right resonates with me because I grew up believing I was wrong most of the time. I lacked confidence in myself and my beliefs, and even when I knew the right answer, I usually offered it with a question mark.

Uncertainty and doubt defined my young life.

But as I got older and my confidence grew, so did my delight in being right.

One problem with knowing I am right (and delighting in it) is that it can lead to a smug self-righteousness, which, I know, is quite unattractive. So I try to temper my enthusiasm for being right.retreat-kindness-GodIn my work with people who have been touched by cancer, I have many opportunities to choose between being right and being kind.retreat-kindness-GodFacing a terminal illness can raise all sorts of questions, doubts and fears. Many people ask, Why me?

Sometimes there are answers as to why someone got cancer, but I have heard that 80% of cancers are just bad luck.

That, of course, leads to another question: Why am I the one to have such bad luck?

Frequently, people have difficulty facing the reality of their situation and will question a doctor’s ability to predict the path of cancer.

For example, a doctor might say, “You will need to be on chemotherapy for the rest of your life,” meaning that without chemo, the cancer will grow unchecked and the person will die.

I have heard doctors described as “rude” for saying this. Quite often people ask, “How does he (or she) know how long I am going to live?” Fair enough.

When I first started in this job, I would suggest the doctor was basing this prognosis on experience, (as in, “most people in your situation need chemo to keep the cancer in check”), but the response I got was usually some version of pshaw.retreat-kindness-God

I quickly learned that why me questions are usually rhetorical—people are not really seeking answers. They are actually looking for someone who will listen to them, acknowledge the dreadfulness of their situation and accept them where they are—fears and all. They are seeking kindness in the midst of desolation.

In truth, there may be no satisfactory explanation as to why someone gets cancer, and the doctor may or may not be right in predicting the path cancer will take; so much of life is mystery.

My job is to practice being kind instead of being right.retreat-kindness-God

 

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mindful-grief-transformation

It is not all right with me

I went to San Francisco a few weeks ago for a workshop on grief. One of my intentions was to notice what I notice. Whether I was walking the grounds of the retreat center—hearing birds and seeing flowers, trees and bugs—or sitting in a workshop session, I tried to be present and mindful.mindful-grief-transformationWhen the presenter spoke, I tried to pay attention to the words that caught my attention and the images and memories that came to me. When others shared, I listened attentively and also noted my reactions and feelings—trying to pay attention to what was stirred up inside me.

The whole weekend felt like one continuous prayer where I was trying to be open to God’s invitation to gain insight and freedom. I was there to learn, not only what the workshop had to offer, but also what God was offering to me.

I had brought with me my losses and grief—and also hopes for insight and transformation—and hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:3-5).

It is not all right with me was a prompt I used for one of the workshop’s writing exercises. It was from a list of “protest” prompts which included:

I say it matters

Enough

I will not live small

No more

I will not pretend

I survived.

We were instructed to write for ten minutes without stopping, to keep the pen moving and let flow whatever flowed.

In part, I wrote, “It is not all right with me that anyone not take me seriously, that I be ignored or discounted. It is not all right with me that my opinion be dismissed or my beliefs be minimized….It is not all right with me to have the value of my experience doubted or belittled.”

Since returning home, I have read my journal entries from the workshop several times, and this section of my journal keeps catching my attention.

I tried to recall the last time someone did not take me seriously or dismissed me or my beliefs, and I realized that I am the person who does this. I am the queen of “yes, but…” when someone compliments me or asks me to share something. I demur, believing others have much more to offer than I.

I am guilty of discounting my experiences, of dismissing my mindful-grief-transformationopinions and minimizing my beliefs. I am the one who tends to belittle my experience and doubt my own reality.

It was an “aha” moment about complicity in not taking myself seriously. No matter how much affirmation I get, I tend to minimize my experience and accomplishments. It was also a moment for self-compassion, another theme of the workshop.mindful-grief-transformationI pray to be open to the invitations God offers for transformation and self-compassion. I pray to be more trusting in the positive messages from others than the negative messages I tell myself. I pray to lean into God and allow God’s love to fill me. I pray to say, “Yes” without adding the “but.”mindful-grief-transformation

 

 

 

 

 

 

heart-prayer-vulnerability

Still noticing what I notice

My annual retreats can have long-lasting effects, and some themes from this year’s retreat continue to affect me. One theme was to notice what I notice; another was my heart and how I over-protect it.

A few weeks ago, I was searching for images related to prayer when an image of a partially-covered heart caught my attention.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI kept coming back to this image, even though it was not what I had been seeking. But something in that heart was speaking to me, drawing me in. It was as if God was whispering to me, reveal your heart.

Perhaps God was using this image to remind me of the connection between my heart and prayer and how I need to be more vulnerable in prayer. Perhaps God was using this image as an invitation to open my heart to God and to the people I see every day.

I find my heart being stirred as I listen to the stories of people at the cancer support center where I work. Listening, I think, requires a soft heart, one that can hear without judgment, one that can hold pain and suffering alongside gratitude and hope.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI have come to believe that most people who come to our center want to be heard as much as anything else. They want to talk about their fears and anxieties and hopes. They want to be acknowledged and affirmed.

My role is to listen to what is being said and to listen even more deeply to what is not being said. I try to pause before I speak, and I am learning to ask more questions than to offer answers. I hear myself asking, “What do you think it means?” or saying, “Tell me more about that.” And then I listen.heart-prayer-vulnerabilitySometimes, things seem much clearer to me than they seem to be to the person sitting in front of me. A significant weight loss or a change in skin color can indicate something has changed, even though the person may be unaware or in denial. Is it my job to say what I notice? I wonder.

It is so much easier to see things in others than in myself; my blind spots keep my own truths hidden. But, I believe that God is clueing me into my blind spots by what I notice in others—and inviting me to reflect back on my own issues.

So, for example, when I am particularly aware of someone being critical or judgmental, I ask myself if that awareness is connected to my own tendencies to be critical or judgmental. When I notice someone being impatient, I check my own level of patience; the same goes for fear or anger or resentment or….

Noticing what I notice helps slow me down and pay attention what is in front of me—whether it is a word in scripture or an image on my computer or someone sharing their fears. God continues to invite me to slow down and notice.
heart-prayer-vulnerability

 

retreat-meditation-God

To see as God sees

Retreats are wonderful opportunities for serendipitous moments of insight. Stepping away from daily living creates a space to be more open and aware, and to get a different perspective on what is right in front of me.retreat-meditation-God

The second morning of my recent retreat, I opened my prayer book and found a note a friend had sent a few years ago. I did not remember putting it there, but there it was.

My friend was reflecting on her desire to let go of wanting to be seen by others in some particular good light (good mother, good neighbor, etc.), and just to see herself as God sees her.

Her words touched my own struggle with my desire to be seen—just to be visible—and then also to be seen as good or successful or as possessing some other positive attribute.

My desire for others’ approval can motivate me to accomplish many things; it can also take up an inordinate amount of energy and leave me feeling anxious.

My friend’s note included a Celtic prayer:

“Be the eye of God dwelling within me.

Be the foot of Christ in guidance with me.

Be the shower of the Spirit pouring on me, richly and generously.”

The phrase “eye of God dwelling within me” caught my attention, and I spent some time that day and the next pondering what God’s eye would see through my eyes and also what God’s eye sees when looking at me.

For many years, I would not talk about my faith, believing it would be of little or no interest or particularly helpful or relevant. I believed that each person’s spiritual experience was as personal as mine. Plus, who was I to talk about how God blessed me? It sounded too bold—not humble at all.

My spiritual director gave me this definition of humility: Humility means telling the truth—being neither less than nor greater than I really am.

Her words deepened my pondering on who I am in God’s eyes, how God sees me.

The past seven years have been a time of great loss for me and each loss left me feeling more and more vulnerable. Being vulnerable is very uncomfortable for me, and I instinctively dealt with it by closing in on myself. With each loss, I added another layer to a protective shield around my heart, until my heart had become encased. In the process, I think I forgot who I am and whose I am.

In a dream one night, I had to climb through a barbed wire fence. Upon waking, it occurred to me that barbed wire is a fitting image for the protective shield around my heart—painful for me to climb through to be free or for anyone else to reach in.retreat-meditation-God

I prayed for the grace to dismantle the shield around my heart, to unwrap the layers of barbed wire so that I can see as God sees and be the person God calls me to be.

 

retreat-meditation-mindfulness

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.

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.

 

 

create-prayer

Inertia

Inertia is not a word I hear often, but when someone said it the other day, what popped into my mind was: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. I don’t know when I learned Newton’s law of inertia —maybe fifty years ago—but it obviously stuck.

I hadn’t thought of inertia in a long time, but since hearing the word I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve been thinking about how inertia works in my life, where I am in motion and where I am at rest.

Just days before my friend Jim died, he said, “I hope you start to sew again.” It was an odd, random thing for him to say—the wish of a dying man—and his words haunt me. Since his death more than four years ago, I have sewed a bit, but not started sewing in the way he meant.

Sewing is pure joy for me. In a very short time, I can transform a piece of fabric into a skirt or a dress. Sewing is magic and has always been a marvel for me.

create-sew

I recently saw a news clip about an art program inthe Detroit public schools. As a glass blower changed a rod of glass into a vase, the camera captured the amazement on the faces of the children in the class. I could relate because art stirs the wonder of the child within me. Sewing is an art form that delights and transforms me.

So why have I not been sewing?

create-prayer

“I started sewing,” I told my mother the other day, and I know she hoped I would say I was working on her curtains. I had bought the fabric weeks ago and prepped it, but then did not sew the curtains. I don’t know why, but I just haven’t been able to get started. Inertia.

On that day, though, I did thread the needle and do a little mending, small projects that have been sitting on my sewing machine table for months, begging for my attention.

I have inertia around my prayer, too. I spend time in quiet every morning, but am I really praying? I read scripture and Morning Prayer. I journal. But actually praying, having a conversation with God, an open dialogue, listening for God’s voice, God’s direction? Like sewing, all the pieces are in place, but I seem unable to jump in and do it.

My inertia, I believe, is caused by the losses of the past six years; being at rest is a natural part of the grieving process.

I see signs though that I am moving through my inertia. Studying Polish, gardening, baking and cooking are all activities I have resumed after a time of being at rest.

Threading the needle to mend may have been the first step toward sewing, and a week’s retreat this winter will hopefully rekindle my prayer life and help me to re-engage more fully in life.

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