Tag Archives: service

Exploring Tuscany

We drove south from Florence and made a stop at the Florence American Cemetery, where more than 4,000 Americans are buried. This cemetery is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Our guide, who was from New York, shared the history of the cemetery and told a few stories of the service people buried there. Then we had some time to walk through the grounds.

It was now the end of the day, and our guide asked if we would help her take down the flag. We walked to the flagpole as Taps played from a loudspeaker.


This happned to be on Veterans Day, November 11, 2022.

Mother Teresa speaks to me

Mother Teresa has been speaking to me recently. Not directly, of course, but through a daily reflection book I have been reading this year, Do Something Beautiful for God.

Sometimes, they are pithy sayings like the entry for October 19:

Life is an adventure; dare it.

I, too, believe that life is an adventure, and I am doing my best to dare it, by taking risks, traveling, saying yes to opportunities. I am doing things I love and enjoying life. I wonder, though, if that is what Mother Teresa meant. Her life seemed totally devoted to service, so when she says adventure, what does she mean?

Last month, I participated in two opportunities to serve meals at two churches in the city, and I was reminded of the importance of direct contact with people who live closer to the edge than I do. Most of the volunteer work I do now is organizational (boards and committees), so cooking and serving meals felt like an invitation to return to the kind of service I used to do. A different kind of adventure.

Other times, Mother Teresa’s words seem to be inviting me to a movement in prayer. The entry for October 14: Every moment of prayer, especially before our Lord in the tabernacle, is a sure, positive gain. The time we spend each day sitting with God is the most precious part of the whole day.

This one spoke to me on several levels. First, I don’t tend to spend time before our Lord in the tabernacle, perhaps because it was not part of my religious upbringing and because I have to go someplace to find a tabernacle. I pray in the morning at home, but I know that when I have prayed in chapel (on retreat mostly), I have found it peaceful. When I read this reflection, I wondered why I don’t go to chapel more often.

That led me to reflect on my time in prayer every morning and if it is the most precious part of the whole day. I know that when I am on retreat, spending a whole week in silence and focused on God 24/7, my prayer seems to be deeper and more precious.  Perhaps the invitation is to be more attentive to God throughout the day—on retreat or not.

The entry for October 16: If you were to die today, what would others say about you? What was in you that was beautiful, that was Christlike, that helped others to pray better? Face yourself, with Jesus at our side, and do not be satisfied with just any answer. Go deep into the question. Examine your life.

When I left Pennsylvania nine years ago—after having lived there for twenty-eight years—friends had a going-away party for me and one after another, people said all kinds of wonderful things about me. My friend Ted said it was like being at my own wake, and I still smile when I recall that party. One thing that stood out to me was how many people thanked me for doing some small thing that I did not even remember doing—a kind word or some small favor that meant little to me but had a big impact on them.

That reminded me of Mother Teresa’s saying: Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

What feeds your soul?

How long have you been knitting? asked one of the women in a group I was teaching to knit.

Not long, I replied. Only about fifteen years.

Fifteen years! she exclaimed. That’s almost my whole life. She was twenty-two; I was fifty. We had different life perspectives.


That memory came back to me the other day, along with a memory of a blog I read a few years ago by a young man who had been meditating for fifteen minutes a day for thirty days. He was writing about how that practice for those thirty days had changed his life.

I thought, Tell me how meditation has changed your life after you have been meditating every day for thirty years.

In the first blush of learning something new, when we are in the honeymoon phase, we can imagine that this is it—the one thing that will change our lives forever. But as everyone knows, the honeymoon ends and then we need to figure out a way to live out our commitments.

Meditating for thirty days is a good start, but it is just that—a start.

Very little lasts forever or with the initial enthusiasm. Relationships that seemed so full of promise can fall apart. Jobs that seemed so perfect can end up being confining. A spiritual practice that offers new insights after thirty days can feel like a chore after six months.

I think we need that honeymoon phase to entice us to do what is for our own good. Plus, those first feelings of connection, interest or passion give us something to fall back on once the honeymoon is over.

In relationships, it is important to remember what about this person first attracted us, because we know that those quirky habits that seemed so endearing at the beginning can become the very things we find irritating later in the relationship.

The spiritual journey is like that, too. Those good feelings at the beginning of a spiritual practice might fade once the practice feels like a chore. But that initial spark is something we can always return to if the spark fades.

I have been participating in an eight-week, on-line retreat focused on the foundations of soul work. The retreat directors have discussed a variety of frameworks for spiritual growth within the Christian tradition, from the desert fathers and mothers to the Rule of St. Benedict, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the more recent work of Thomas Keating.

The culmination of the retreat is to name our own “Rule of Life,” those foundational practices that keep us growing spiritually, and to describe or illustrate those practices in some way.

For me, the pillars that support my spiritual life are

  • daily prayer (Lectio Divina)
  • community/worship
  • creativity (knitting, gardening, cooking, etc.)
  • curiosity (learning)
  • journaling/writing
  • service  
  • annual silent retreats.

These elements have been the underpinnings of my spiritual life for many years, some since I was a child.

What fosters your spiritual growth and feeds your soul?


What stirs your spirit?

What stirs your spirit?

A sunrise or sunset?

The gentle lapping of waves?

A walk in the woods?

Art or dance or theater?

Giving a gift or receiving one?

Being present to someone in need?

What stirs your spirit?

In the silence of meditation, God speaks.

Inviting me to be open,

To be ready to let the breath of the Spirit softly brush against my soul,

Reminding me I am called to love.


Vulnerability as a gift

Every winter, my church participates in a rotating shelter program for people who are homeless; this year, thirty men are staying with us for a week.

Our parish school closed years ago, but for this one week, classrooms are converted into bedrooms, the gym into a cafeteria, and a large meeting room into a gathering space with televisions, games and snacks. It is an excellent example of repurposing.

I love the outpouring of generosity this program elicits, as parishioners step up to serve as hosts, prepare meals, provide transportation and do laundry. The planning for this week is spearheaded by one couple who start months in advance to make sure they have enough volunteers lined up to meet the needs of our guests this week.God-vulnerability-serviceMost nighttime shelters are set up for sleeping, and the people who are staying usually have to leave for the day. The rotating shelter program operates under the same rules, but holidays are the exception.

On New Year’s Day, I was one of four volunteers who spent the afternoon with our guests.

The day before, I was aware that our guests were arriving that evening. Throughout the day, I held the guests, organizers and volunteers in prayer. I was conscious of how blessed I am to have a home with heat—and to earn enough money to be able to pay my heating bills. All day, I thanked God for my blessings.God-vulnerability-serviceTwice in my life, I have been without a home and had to rely on the generosity of others to have a place to stay. Both times, I was humiliated and felt incredibly vulnerable; and I did not like it.

So being able to offer hospitality to others through this program is especially meaningful to me.

The afternoon started with lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of fresh flowers, creating a feeling of spring inside—in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. I sat with two other volunteers, and after we had finished eating, one of the guests came to our table and offered to clear away our dishes.

“Thank you,” we each said as he carried away our trays.

“I like to help,” he commented.

Being vulnerable and needing to rely on the generosity of others can create the sense of being a taker, of having little or nothing to offer. It took me a long time to understand the gift of vulnerability—the gift of seeing myself as being an opportunity for others to be generous.

My time as host on New Year’s Day included refilling water pitchers, replenishing snacks and helping guests with their medications. Last summer, I learned to play Euchre (a card game that is popular in Michigan), and I spent part of the afternoon in a Euchre game.

I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to put myself at the service of others, and also to be an opportunity for someone else to serve.



Getting ready

In my religious tradition, Christmas is a season that begins on Christmas Day. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a separate season—Advent.

Some years I am more attentive to Advent than others, and this year, I feel called to pay attention to Advent.

The differences between Advent and Christmas are easy to see. Advent is a time of waiting—just think of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. It is clear that something is about to happen, and family and friends eagerly anticipate the birth of a child. There may be some anxiety (it is possible that something could go wrong or not turn out as expected), but for most people, the expectant hope and joy outweigh the worry.

Christmas, on the other hand, is the time of celebration. To continue the analogy, the baby has arrived; it is time to rejoice.

In our culture, Advent seems to get overlooked, and we move right to Christmas (now as early as October, if we are to believe retailers). That would be like a woman who is only six or seven months pregnant acting as if her baby had already been born.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are often seen as a time of gearing up, but Advent really invites us to slow down and pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within.

I used to write bulletin reflections for a priest friend, and one Advent he asked me to encourage parishioners to resist the secular celebration of Christmas during Advent and to truly celebrate Advent.

I felt a bit guilty completing this assignment because I always unpack my Christmas mugs on the first Sunday of Advent, and every day of Advent, I enjoy coffee in a Christmas mug. Not very Advent-ish of me.

In my defense, I love my Christmas mugs and they get so little use (December and early January).

But, I wrote the reflection piece and gave some suggestions on celebrating Advent.

I have been pondering ways I might use Advent to get ready for Christmas. Some ideas:

  • Practice patience—check frustration, yield, wait;
  • Reach out to someone who is alone or lonely and offer companionship and comfort;
  • Seek forgiveness and reconciliation;
  • Take a break from some popular-culture activity that consumes leisure time (television, texting, movies, sports, etc.) and spend that time in prayer or service (maybe for just one or two hours each of the weeks of Advent);
  • Do at least one act of kindness every day, totaling twenty-two acts of kindness—hold the door for someone, offer a compliment, pay the toll of the person behind you, add something extra to tips, thank someone….it does not have to be extraordinary to be meaningful;
  • Save all Christmas cards and open them all on Christmas Day or during the days of the Christmas season (which ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 8, 2018);
  • Practice gratitude.

Advent offers quiet blessings and insights if we slow down and pay attention.Advent-God-gratitude




Leaving my comfort zone

One moment of clarity during my recent retreat involved Matthew 25:31-46, the story of the sheep and the goats.

For the better part of one year, (many years ago) I prayed almost exclusively with this passage of scripture. I would try to move on, but God kept calling me back. “I guess I am a slow learner,” I would joke with God when I could not seem to move onto other scriptures. I knew I was missing something but could not figure out what it was.

I did continue to have aha moments as the year passed, gaining deeper insight into the message as the words permeated my being.

Thirty years later, this passage still draws me and connects me with my basic call from God:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

These works of mercy became the standard against which I measured myself. When was the last time I fed someone who was hungry or gave drink to someone who was thirsty? When did I welcome a stranger or care for someone who was sick or visit someone in prison?

I took the commands literally. I believed Matthew outlined these works clearly so that there could be doubt about what I was to do. And I believed that Jesus was calling me to engage in each and every activity.healing-prayer-spirituality-Jesus

The passage goes on to say, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did to me.

That is the part that took me a while to grasp—to see that whatever good work I did, I did for Jesus, that the person on the receiving end was Jesus. Here was the mystery.

I had done good works before 1986, but I had somehow missed this piece of the equation, the part where I was actually doing it to or for Jesus. I thought I was just helping another person, but to realize that I was helping Jesus cast my efforts in a different light, because by doing these good works I was actually putting myself in a position to interact directly with Jesus. And in doing for Jesus, I was setting myself up to receive something in return—healing.

God was inviting me to get in touch with my own hunger, thirst, nakedness, alienation and imprisonment—and to let His love in through my acts of service for others. By offering mercy, I was receiving mercy.

Every act of kindness I did softened my heart and made me more compassionate. Every good deed opened the door for Jesus to shift my vision so I could see the world as Jesus sees it.


Some of these commands can demand I move far outside my comfort zone; and I have come to believe that that is exactly where Jesus is waiting for me.healing-prayer-spirituality-Jesus

Serving those who serve

Last February, when a friend started a year-long assignment working with the Marines in Okinawa, Japan, we started talking about my visiting her. In June, I purchased my ticket to fly to Okinawa for Thanksgiving.

I live in an area with a relatively low concentration of military personnel, but once I started thinking of this trip I began to notice people in uniform.

A recent work meeting at a local restaurant started with my colleague whispering something to the server. I didn’t pay too much attention to this exchange until a little later, when a man in uniform came to our table and said, “Thank you, sir.”

My colleague replied, “Thank you for your service.” He had quietly picked up the tab for this serviceman. Tears filled my eyes. My father was a veteran, as is my older brother. I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I knew people who served. Military service can be an emotional subject for me.

A few weeks before my scheduled trip to Okinawa, my friend called and asked if I wanted to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the Marines on her base. “Heck, yeah,” I replied with unbridled enthusiasm. She signed us up for an afternoon of serving.

Camp Hansen is home to thousands of Marines on Okinawa. My friend’s unit has something to do with artillery, but I was not interested in the details of their work. I only wanted to serve those who are serving. I wanted to say “thank you” as my colleague had done at that restaurant.

The Thanksgiving feast was held at the USO on base, where long tables were set with platters of turkey and a variety of side dishes. Different parts of the States were represented in dishes like green beans with chunks of pork, macaroni and cheese, and Jello salad—plus the usual mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and rolls. A steady stream of Marines came through the line and we exchanged Happy Thanksgiving wishes as we served.

At one point, a young Marine came to our side of the table to serve. He stood beside me, ramrod straight, and dished out turkey to his fellow Marines. During a lull in serving, I tried to engage him in conversation by asking about the basketball game playing on a television across the hall. “I don’t really like basketball, ma’am,” he said.

“What sports do you like?” I asked.

“Football and hockey, ma’am.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Buffalo, ma’am.”

“I am from Detroit,” I said. “I think your football team played in Detroit this week because of the snow.”

He said, “Yes, ma’am,” but something had changed. His eyes sparkled and he was smiling; he had softened, as if had stepped out of his formal Marine persona and into his sports-loving self.

With great enthusiasm, he went on to tell me he had watched the game and how his team had painted our field and beat the New York Jets—a double victory in his eyes.

At that moment, I wanted to call his mother and tell her that her son was ok, that he was still watching his beloved sports teams and hoping for winning seasons—that he still loved what he loved.

I don’t expect the Marines I served to remember me, but I will long remember them and this unique opportunity to say “thanks.