Tag Archives: spirituality

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

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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

Lent-God-spirituality

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

God-spirituality-vulnerability

A gentle push toward God

When I tell people I am going on a week’s silent retreat, the usual reaction is a grimace. A whole week without talking? Follow-up questions usually run along the lines of, “You mean outside of the sessions?” or “You mean outside of the meals and breaks?” or some version of looking for an out.

I do talk with my spiritual director once a day—a check-in to see where God is leading me—but otherwise there are no sessions, no chitchat, no casual conversations, no television or internet. Retreat is an opportunity to disconnect from the world. Every year, I look forward to it.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOnce people accept I really mean silent, the next question is usually, “Then what do you do all day?”

Mostly, I pray, meditate and rest. I also take walks—both exercise and meditative walks. I knit and do puzzles, and I write—a lot.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityAbide in love was the phrase I took with me on retreat this year. I was clear this phrase was from 1 John 4:16 rather than John 15:9 (As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.) Although this is one of my favorite scripture passages, I hear it more as an invitation to stay close to Jesus, to remain by his side.

I hear the other abiding to be more outward focused—as if there is a pool or lake of love and I am invited to stop there, to dip into this pool of love, and then go out to others.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityThe beauty of stepping away from the world is that it offers an exceptional opportunity to be mindful, and I find it much easier to notice what I notice, to pay attention to the words, images and memories that arise in the silence.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOne day, after a long walk, I sat on a dock overlooking a wildlife area—a frozen bog with brown grasses swaying gently in the breeze—and a Simone Weil quote about a labyrinth popped into my mind.

The story is that a person enters the labyrinth. He continues walking, not really knowing if he is making progress or merely walking in circles. Eventually, with courage, he finds the center, and there he meets God. God consumes him, and he is changed by this encounter. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityI love the image of meeting God in the center and then being consumed by God—to give myself over completely, to surrender to God and to be changed by the experience.

Reflecting on that image reminded me of something I had read on the feast of St. Francis de Sales the week before—about encouraging people to find the religious dimensions of their lives.

Noticing what I noticed, I wondered if God is calling me to be someone who stands at the entrance of the labyrinth and gently pushes others toward the center.God-spirituality-vulnerability

 

 

 

God-spirituality-vulnerability

Does it bring you joy?

Does it bring you joy? Someone suggested asking this question when paring down my possessions.

After some pondering, I realized that when considering holding onto or getting rid of some possession, I am more apt to ask myself, would letting it go make me feel guilty?

I have been incredibly blessed by generous people throughout my life, and my house has lots of objects I received as gifts. I imagine if I had bought all of those things, it would be easier to let go of them, but so much of what I own has a story and a memory connected to it.

Is it possible to hold onto the memory and the story—and let go of the object?God-spirituality-joyMany years ago, I read a book about holding onto the gifts of retreat.

Retreats can be sacred moments in life, creating space to step out of daily routines, clear my mind of everyday worries, and focus on God and God’s will for me. Retreats offer the opportunity to get some distance and perspective, to look at how I am living and to consider any needed course corrections.

While on retreat, I often talk with God about what in my life needs to go—usually old fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts.God-spirituality-joyHolding onto those insights from retreat once I am back in my daily routine can be a challenge. Daily prayer helps. Regular meetings with a spiritual director also help. This book suggested asking these questions about everyday situations:

  • Is this what I really want?
  • Will this matter tomorrow? In ten years? At the end of my life?
  • What do I think? feel? need? want?

The second set of questions has been the easiest for me to answer because I can see how insignificant many everyday occurrences really are. These questions have helped me let go of a great deal of hurt and anger. How much energy am I going to give to something that really has very little long-term significance?

The other questions, though, continue to challenge me. Like the question about what brings me joy, asking what I want or need seems somewhat foreign to me. It must be the way I was raised—spend very little time or thought on my own needs; focus more on the needs of others.  This is also the message I take from the Bible.

Of course, I know that I do have wants and needs, and over the course of my life, I have come to see how much healthier I am when I get in touch with them.

So, what is it that brings me joy? The objects in my home? Or the memories attached to them?

It is definitely the memories that remind me how blessed I have been.

Last year, I committed to writing a “love” letter every day in February—a note to someone who had blessed my life and brought me joy. I called it twenty-eight days of love. I thank I will do that again.God-spirituality-joy