Tag Archives: spirituality

mindfulness-cancer-faith

Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.

 

 

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God-vulnerability-faith

Suddenly

One of the readings at Mass on Pentecost Sunday was Acts 2:1-11. When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly…

The word suddenly caught my attention—and held it. Throughout the rest of Mass and in the days since then, I have been repeating it.

Everything changed for the disciples on the first Pentecost. In one moment, the old life was gone; a new life started.God-vulnerability-faithI thought of times in my life when suddenly everything changed. My own Pentecost experience on March 7, 1973, was a life-changing encounter with the Spirit. I had new hope and vision after that encounter. Life looked different; the possibilities seemed endless.

That was a good suddenly.God-vulnerability-faithThere have been other times, though, when things changed suddenly, but not in a positive way. Jim’s cancer diagnosis was like that. One day, he was fine and then, suddenly, he wasn’t. Life looked different, but the possibilities were not evident.

Fortunately for me, in between those two events—the first when I was twenty-one and the second when I was fifty-nine—I had plenty of other times when my life was going in one direction and then changed course. All of those course shifts taught me the importance of restoring balance as quickly as possible—and of trusting that no matter the direction, God was always with me.

But, why now did this word take hold? What is the significance?

I prayed for insight. Every time I found myself repeating the word, suddenly, I would ask God, “What is the invitation in this word?”

The next weekend at Mass, our pastor talked about personal missions—not going on mission or being a missionary—but rather having clarity about my specific mission, God’s plan for me with my exact history, gifts, skills and talents.

One would think that by my age, I would have great clarity about my life mission, especially since I have spent most of my life working in mission-driven nonprofits.

But then I think of Sarah and Elizabeth having babies in their old age, and I know that God does not have the same expectations of age that we do.

The thing about sudden events is that there is no way to anticipate them or to plan for them. But there is a way to live that makes it easier to receive them.

For me, that means letting go of expectations, dropping my defenses and keeping my cynicism in check. It means being open and vulnerable and willing to be born again in the Spirit.God-vulnerability-faithNext Friday is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an invitation to ponder unfathomable love and an invitation to keep my heart open to receiving and giving love. If I can do that, the Spirit’s sudden movement will be a breath of fresh air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vulnerability-faith-hope

Finding my voice

When I approached the presenter at the cancer caregivers workshop to share my reaction to her words about hope, she responded, “I wish you would have said that at the mic.”

At the end of each presentation, we were invited to come to the mic and ask questions or share reflections.

But, I don’t do that; I don’t share in front of groups.

Ironically, I love public speaking and have done a fair amount of it for my nonprofit work. But there is a difference between telling other people’s stories and sharing my personal stories. Other people’s, ok. My own, not so much.

As a child, I was told that what happened in our house stayed in our house. We also did not talk inside our house about anything that happened. I felt invisible, as if no one cared what I was going through—or even noticed that I was there. I didn’t seem to matter.
vulnerability-faith-hopeBy my late twenties, I was an emotional mess and started going to therapy to help me process growing up in a chaotic house and to reconcile my past.

However, growing up in a home where I was told never to talk about what happened made sharing extremely stressful. Every time words formed about an experience or feeling, an alarm would sound inside my head. Do not say that!vulnerability-faith-hopeI was incapable of identifying what I was feeling, much less talking about it.

Early on in therapy, I shared one of my earliest memories.

I was four years old, playing in my back yard, when I found a dime. What luck! Even at that young age, I knew a dime could buy me something special. I remember how shiny it was and how fortunate I felt. And then my older brother saw what I had and claimed it was his. “No!” I shouted. “It’s mine!” He tried to take it from me, and I knew he would triumph, so I swallowed it.

My therapist commented, “And you have been swallowing every challenge since them.”

I once heard Fr. Richard Rohr talk about our shadow side, and he described it as a sack where we stuff all the negative things from our lives. The image that popped into my mind was of something like Santa’s bag—this huge sack, dragging behind me. I could feel the weight of it pulling me back.

My shadow bag was filled with twenty-eight years of negative experiences that I had swallowed and tamped down deeper and deeper.

As I began to unpack my shadow bag in therapy and at retreats, and look at my history, I started to realize that surviving those experiences had made me who I was; they had made me strong and resilient. Learning to talk about it—especially at the mic—is still a work in progress.vulnerability-faith-hope

 

 

God-caregiving-cancer

Lessons from caregiving

During my friend Jim’s illness, we received many cards expressing care and concern; and then after his death, condolences. I recently came across one of the condolence cards. The message read:

I know Jim was/is a good man…a good friend and is sorely missed. But for you a great source of comfort must be what a friend you were to him.

 “What you do for the least of my brethren that you do unto me” really resonates—not that Jim could ever be considered the least but he was/is a beloved friend who needed help and you certainly gave it.

 You also deserve and I’m sure will have a high place in heaven when you meet again. Thank you for a wonderful lesson.

I had read this note six years ago, but reading it now, the last line caught my attention and I felt invited to a deeper understanding of my taking care of Jim.

For me, being a caregiver meant thinking of Jim first. When asked about anything else, I would say, “Right now, my focus is on Jim,” while gesturing with my hands to show my tunnel vision.God-caregiving-cancerI was committed to giving Jim as much independence as possible and letting him make as many decisions as possible.

I had learned this lesson from my mother. When I was a child, my Uncle Steve came to live with us when he got cancer; my mother cared for him until he died. The sacrifices she made for him, her brother-in-law, showed me what caregiving was all about.

Similarly, when my dad had a major stroke, my mother honored his wishes not to go to the hospital. We called in hospice, and my dad spent his last three months of life at home.God-caregiving-cancerSo, what I did for Jim was what my mother modeled for me. I was certainly not thinking of any lesson; I just did what I could for him. Only recently have I started to consider the magnitude of my caring for him.

The cancer in Jim’s brain weakened the right side of his body. Early on, he said, “I guess I have to become a lefty.” For most of the time he was sick, I was his right hand—bathing, dressing, shaving and feeding him. We walked up the stairs in tandem—his right foot resting on my left.

Jim was both very private and very proud. He did not want anyone else to help him. When he started to fall (one of the signs of end-stage brain cancer), it could take me up to forty-five minutes to get him up because he had so little strength to help. Once he was up, I would flex my biceps and joke that I was going to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm-wrestling match.

Taking care of Jim was physically demanding; knowing that he was going to die soon was emotionally taxing; and putting his needs ahead of mine was spiritually enriching. So many lessons in one experience.God-caregiving-cancer

Vulnerability-forgiveness-Lent

Loving our enemies

The perfection of brotherly love lies in the love of one’s enemies –Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot

In college, my Christology professor asked the class, “Do you think you will see Hitler in heaven?”

It was a trick question, but a number of my fellow students fell for it. “No,” they shouted, indignant that he would suggest something so horrific.

“But what if Hitler, at the very end of his life, repented?” the professor asked.

Hmm.

If God is love (1 John 4:8), then God’s mercy is limitless and certainly not constrained by our sense of who is deserving of God’s love and who is not. No matter how heinous someone’s crimes were, there is always the opportunity to repent and receive God’s mercy.Vulnerability-forgiveness-Lent“Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakable serenity—Father, forgive them—and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love?” (Mirror of Love by Saint Aelred, abbot.) I think Saint Aelred was onto something when he encouraged his brothers to look at how Jesus forgave those who put him to death.The very night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks—and the next day, he asked God to forgive those who did him harm.

Being grateful and forgiving in the face of betrayal might seem to be the kind of thing only the Son of God could do, but…

Who of us does not want to be forgiven when we betray someone we love? When we make a poor decision that has unintended negative consequences? Who of us wants to be separated from our communities? Unforgiven? Unforgivable?Vulnerability-forgiveness-LentI can tend to be more like Jonah than Jesus—wanting God to carry out his threats of punishment on people who are living in sin. Jonah was angry at God for relenting in his promised punishment of the people of Ninevah.  He felt betrayed by God; he was humiliated and he sulked. But he did not die from any of that.

Vulnerability-forgiveness-Lent
Pamela Holderman

I wonder if Jonah ever came to a place where he gave thanks for God’s mercy. I wonder if he ever came to see his own betraying ways and was grateful that our God is merciful to everyone.

When Jesus was betrayed, it literally cost him his life, which makes my having been betrayed pale in comparison. I survived the times I have been betrayed and maybe even grew from them.

Lent invites me to reflect on my attitudes toward forgiveness.

Thinking of how quickly Jesus was able to let go of being betrayed, of how he could give thanks when he knew he was on his way to the cross, invites me to do the same—to turn around and give thanks and blessing when I have been hurt.

I imagine that Jesus had spent his life being grateful and forgiving—he had been practicing. The invitation to me is to practice letting go of betrayals, hurts and disappointments and readjusting my expectations of myself and others.

 

 

God-prayer-meditation

Spending time with God

In 1995, two friends and I started a faith-sharing group. We began with the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and we made a commitment to spend an hour every day in prayer and meditation. We got together once a week to share what God was saying to us during that daily hour of prayer.

My yes to this commitment was monumental because I had resisted setting aside a regular time for daily prayer and meditation. I was one of those people who said that my prayer life was more fluid and the idea of setting limits—fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour—every day would limit the Spirit. I believed that, too.

Until 1995 when I actually tried it. “Mea culpa,” I said to Sister Ann, one of the people who had suggested this practice to me. She was right; I was wrong.

It turned out that setting aside time for prayer every day did not inhibit the Spirit and actually opened me up to being more present to God throughout the day. It was as if that time each morning predisposed me toward God.God-prayer-meditationI both like and dislike those kinds of insights. Admitting I am wrong did not come easily to me when I was young. (And although I am still not much of a fan, I have had lots of practice owning up to my mistakes, and it comes a bit easier now.)

So, since 1995, I have set aside an hour each morning for prayer and meditation. I journal, read scripture, and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I call to mind the people who have asked me to pray for them and allow space for God to bring others to mind. I ponder the words and images that catch my attention and sit silently with whatever the hour brings.

In the beginning, I would sometimes find myself looking at the clock, but other days the hour would fly by. It turned out I had a lot to say to God—and God had a lot to say to me, too.God-prayer-meditationI came to cherish that quiet time each morning and eventually got to the point where I could not imagine my day without it.

Sometimes, there seem to be no new insights, just an hour spent in silence; then I would remind myself that no hour devoted to God is ever wasted.

One hour a day, 365 days a year for more than 22 years—that’s a whole lot of hours.

I could have done something else with that time—watched the morning news, cleaned my house, etc.—but I believe my life would be the poorer for it.

I am grateful for my friend Steve, who first suggested praying the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and I often say a prayer of gratitude for his wisdom and guidance. Steve died in 2013, but I still feel his presence during my morning prayer.God-prayer-meditation

 

Lent-God-spirituality

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