Tag Archives: spirituality

Creating space for the spiritual

My grandparents came from Poland, and my parents spoke Polish as their first language. They learned English in school but spoke Polish at home. Their religious training—what my grandparents handed on to them about the beliefs, customs and the rituals of their faith—was also in Polish.

Like many people who learn English as their second language, my parents spoke with an accent, and they were self-conscious about it. I don’t know what kind of ridicule they endured, but it was enough that they did not want their children to be treated as they had been, so they decided not to teach us Polish. They wanted their children to fit in and be like other Americans.

But because my parents’ faith was expressed in Polish, my religious instruction was limited to what I learned at weekly catechism classes.

I was not aware of the impact of this until I became an adult and began to see how little I knew about my faith. “I missed that lesson,” was my common response when other Catholics spoke about matters of faith. There was so much I did not know.

I did not even know how to pray the rosary!

At some point in my young adult life, though, I realized that my ignorance of Church teachings had not gotten in the way of my developing a relationship with God.

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From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in some special way. I seemed to see things from a slightly different angle than others, and I drew conclusions that left adults baffled. My father used to say, “You didn’t learn that in this house,” when I would offer an opinion that was shaped by my relationship with God.

Through the Sunday readings, I had gotten to know Jesus’ story well enough to feel close to him. He became a brother to me.

I loved the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion. Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane was my anguish. His cry to God—why have you abandoned me?—was also my cry.

Jesus, like me, was an innocent victim.

Jesus got me in a way no one else in my life did, and I was so grateful for this connection. I felt like Jesus saw me and understood what I was going through, and I leaned into that relationship.

I could talk to Jesus about what was happening in my life, and I shared my fears and anxieties with him, knowing he was not going to tell anyone. I trusted him completely.

My spiritual life grew out mystery and grace, and my lived experience of Jesus drew me closer to God.

I began to go deep within myself to that space at my core where God dwelt, where God’s spirit lived as a small flame. By the time I was a teen, I could sit in silent meditation for long periods of time, happily connecting with Jesus and the Spirit of God within me.

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What is unique to you?

I have started thinking about retirement, and I know myself well enough to know that even though I will stop going to an office every day, I will need to do something, because I am not good at being idle.

I have been asking in prayer what God wants me to do in the next chapter of my life and have made lists of possible ways to fill my retirement—from dog walker to non-profit consultant.

Some days, I long to do something that requires very little thought or preparation, and other days, I feel a responsibility to pay forward what I have learned from my work.

“What is uniquely yours?” my spiritual director asked when I raised the subject of my next chapter. She believes I have a responsibility to pass on what God has given me, a message I have heard from her before and others throughout my life.

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I have had so many “unique” experiences—from living in l’Arche and serving as a Mennonite volunteer to leading a lay mission program that took me to different parts of the world. I have been blessed!

Since that conversation with my spiritual director, I have tried to be more attentive to what might be uniquely mine and how God may be inviting me to share what I have been given.

Each fall, I co-facilitate a day of reflection for our local Jesuit Volunteers, a group of post-college young adults who are dedicating a year to service in Detroit. My talk is on the spirituality of community, and I base most of my talk on my experiences in l’Arche.

I talk about my failures in community living and how my unrealistic expectations got in the way of being a good community member.

Lots of people fail at living in Christian community, so that is not unique to me, but being willing and able to talk publicly about my failure might put me in a more rarified group.

Prayer is another part of that talk, and I share some practical tips about theological reflection and Lectio Divina—also not uniquely mine, but perhaps my take on prayer is unique to me.

Then, two weeks ago at my book group, the topic of spirits came up. We were discussing The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, the story of an African American family living in Detroit. One of the sons in the story encounters a haint, a spirit that is part of some Southern traditions, which led to the discussion of spirits and our experiences of the supernatural.

I shared one of my mystical experiences, something I rarely do, because I have spent my life trying to seem normal, typical, ordinary—and having mystical experiences is anything but normal, typical or ordinary.

It was an aha moment—my mystical visions are unique to me. Throughout my life, God has given me intense prayer experiences and visions that have helped me, but which I have rarely shared with others. Is that my next chapter?

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Be God’s

“Let go of everything,” I thought as the Reiki Master placed her hands on my head.

Then I heard the words, “Be God’s.”

Be God’s what? I wondered. Vessel? Daughter? Voice?

Or is the emphasis on “be,” as in belong to God?

Throughout the Reiki treatment, I tried to let go of thoughts about work and other responsibilities and instead pondered the message to “be God’s.”

Over the next few days, I kept repeating those two words—”Be God’s.”

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What does it mean to be God’s? to belong to God?

I think of myself as already knowing my dependence on God and being God’s creation, so what is this invitation?

Some of the saints came to mind and the ways they were God’s, the ways they lived their lives totally for God and God’s glory.

St. Frances Cabrini prayed, “Help me to desire always that which is pleasing and acceptable to you so that your will may be my will.”

I aspire to that kind of intimacy with God, but I haven’t achieved it. Just ask anyone who knows me.  

That very morning, in fact, just hours before the Reiki treatment, I made a big mistake when I misread a situation. So often, I speak before I think, and then I need to apologize. This was one of those incidents.

Sometimes, when I mess up, I send flowers, but always a note just to make sure the person knows I know that I made a mistake.

In response to my blunder that morning, I had spent that day wondering how to atone. I knew I needed to do something beyond just saying “Sorry,” because one word was not enough to undo the harm of my offensive words.

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But that is the thing about God and about being God’s—God never gives up on me and keeps calling me back, again and again. Only hours after I mess up, I hear God saying, “Be mine.”

Was this simple two-word phrase simply a reminder of God’s forgiveness? Of God’s love?

Or was it tied into something bigger, more comprehensive? Is God inviting me into a new way of being in relationship?

Monday was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the woman who most inspires me in my spiritual journey because of her devotion to Jesus. When everyone else fled, Mary Magdalene remained, and when she encountered the resurrected Jesus, she proclaimed it with confidence. Her relationship with Jesus healed her and changed her.

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I want to be like Mary Magdalene—devoted to Jesus, open to being surprised and ready to witness to the ways Jesus enters my life.

St. Paul wrote “…whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away…new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

This reading reminds me that who I once was I am no longer; who I will become is still being revealed. I pray to be open to the what God is offering because more than anything, I want to be God’s.

Tips for the spiritual journey

The spiritual life invites us to turn away from cultural ideals of power, success and accumulation and to embrace vulnerability, simplicity and poverty. Spirituality speaks of surrender, sacrifice, discipline and detachment.

But we are immersed in our culture, swimming in it, so it can be difficult even to see our attachments and recognize what needs to be let go.

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Some suggestions for the spiritual journey:

~Our culture may demand productivity, but God desires our presence and openness. Doing more (more praying, reading, etc.) and believing we have control of spiritual outcomes can be counterproductive, because our efforts alone will not produce spiritual results.

In the spiritual life, our task is to be open to receive whatever God sends; God does the rest.

A good first step is to let go of our assumptions and expectations and to accept what God sends. Set aside time every day to be present to God and to receive the gift of God’s love.

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~Don’t compare your spiritual journey with another’s. Each of us is at a different place and only God knows where we are meant to be. Accept where you are and focus on your own growth.

Matthew 20:1-16 tells of workers who came early in the day and agreed to a wage. Others came to work later in the day, yet they received the same wage as those who worked a full day. The all-day workers protested. The owner reminded them that they got the agreed-upon wage, adding: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God’s mercy and love is extravagant and abundant. When we are the recipients, it is wonderful. But when we look around and see others we deem as less worthy receiving the same abundance, it can seem we got cheated. Don’t look around.

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~Practice mindfulness. Learning to notice what we notice helps develop awareness of where God is moving in our lives. Stop once or twice a day and look back over the past few hours. When did you feel closest to God? And when did you feel most distant from God?

Learn to look openly at what brings you into harmony with God and what distances you from God, trusting that the Holy Spirit is engaged in both.

Growing in awareness helps us make small course corrections that enable us to be more tuned into God’s movement in our lives.

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~Practice gratitude. Gratitude creates an awareness of the blessings and graces being poured into our lives, but which we can dismiss or not even notice because we are not looking.

Begin by noticing how often you say, “thank you.” Make note of small gifts and blessings you receive throughout the day. It can be as simple as someone holding a door open for you or a patient driver.

Offer thanks for every little thing because gratitude begets gratitude.

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Standing in my beliefs

“I guess I didn’t go there enough,” a friend said after her favorite restaurant closed. She wasn’t being arrogant, as if she alone could have saved the restaurant; she was talking about the choices she had made and the consequences of those choices.

My friend’s comment got me thinking about the choices I make and if my choices give witness to what I say is important to me.

I began to pay more attention to where I spend my time and money, and I came to see that where I go—the places where I literally put my body—gives witness to what I value and believe.

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Matthew 25:31-46 shaped my early relationship with Jesus. This scripture passage instructed me to put my body at the service at the most vulnerable people in my community, and I took seriously the call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and visit those in prison. I wanted to live this scripture faithfully, and after college I explored different options.

On my first visit to l’Arche, while praying in the chapel, I asked God for a sign if I was meant to live in this community. Two community members entered the chapel and sat on either side of me. They closed their eyes and bowed their heads in silent prayer.

It felt like a sign.

At the time, I thought that my deep desire to live the mandate of Matthew 25:31-46, along with past training and work experience, made me an ideal candidate to live in l’Arche. I saw myself as some sort of bearer of the Good News, bringing all my knowledge of what people with disabilities needed to make their lives more meaningful.

It didn’t take long after moving to l’Arche, though, to realize that what I thought of as my gifts were really stumbling blocks.

I had some dark days in l’Arche, when I felt completely powerless and near despair, and I cried out to God, “I didn’t have to move here; I could have learned this from a book.”

But the truth was that I needed to be in that place, stripped of my professional reputation and public persona, so that I could see that I, too, am one of the “least” that Matthew was talking about—that I, too, needed to be fed and clothed and cared for.

One particularly dark day I told my spiritual director that I felt like I was falling apart. 

“No,” she said. “I think you are falling together.”

“Let go,” God seemed to be saying to me—of my need to be in control, to be right, to know better.

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Once I accepted myself as powerless, God could work with me.

l’Arche taught me that Matthew 25:31-46 invites me to do more than stand beside vulnerable people; it invites me to see myself as one of the “least,” because standing is my vulnerability allows God to love and heal me.

Being present to the past

A recent magazine article evoked memories of something that happened thirty years ago, a short chapter in my life I had not thought about in all these years.

As I allowed the scene to play out in my mind, certain details of the people involved came into sharp focus. I remember the names and faces of people who were part of my life for only a few months.

Two men came into my life because one of the men was dying and needed a place to go for the final weeks of his life. I was living in a guest house and was happy to welcome them during this difficult time.

Once this memory resurfaced, I let it play out, allowing the scenes of everyday life with these two men to present themselves. I recalled the people who came to visit them, and I remembered one visitor in particular whose fidelity I greatly admired.

And then I asked God what invitation this memory is offering me. Why now? Why these people and their situation? Why such sharp details?

St. Paul encourages us to forget the past and move on to the future (Philippians 3:13), and I get that. But sometimes the past can hold an invitation or a gift that is helpful to the present.

I have chapters in my past that I would rather not revisit—dark times when I behaved badly and did hurtful things. But just because I try to ignore them does not mean they go away. And sometimes revisiting them can offer a clue to some healing that I need now.

Evelyn Underhill prayed, O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where I hide memories and tendencies on which I do not care to look, but which I will not disinter and yield freely up to you, that you may purify and transmute them.

I have been praying this prayer for the past six months or so, and maybe God is answering with memories like this one from thirty years ago. Maybe it is revealing a tendency on which I do not care to look but which needs to not only be looked at but offered to God for healing.

Underhill ends her prayer, Lord, I bring all these to you, and I review them in your steadfast light.

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For me, the goal and the gift of the spiritual life is freedom—the freedom to live with open hands, accepting whatever comes to me. To do that, I need God’s light to shine a spotlight on those places where I am unfree—my comfort zone.

God invites me to move beyond my comfort zone and to face what limits my freedom.

Unfortunately, a large portion of my comfort zone is filled with negativity and insecurity, and I struggle to see my own goodness.

God invites me to replace negative self-talk with affirmations.

Maybe this memory came back to me to remind me of my generosity in giving this man a place to live his final days.

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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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