Tag Archives: spirituality

God heals

At Mass last weekend we heard the story of Naaman being cured of leprosy after plunging into the Jordan River seven times (2 Kings 14). The passage immediately before the cure story, though, relates Naaman’s expectations of how a cure would happen and his disappointment when things went in a different direction:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not…the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12).

How often do we have an idea of what God should do in order to meet our needs? How often do our expectations limit our experience of God? How often are we like Naaman—so certain of how events should unfold?

Naaman believed he knew the best way for the cure to happen. When his expectation was not met, he “went away angry.” Sound familiar?

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I work in a cancer support center, and I see plenty of people going away angry—after a treatment does not produce the expected results, or family and friends don’t act in an expected way, or employers are uncompromising about time off or our bodies don’t rebound as we had hoped.

Letting go of our expectations can be so difficult. Like Naaman, we can be blind to the possibility of other options, stuck in our way of seeing things, certain that we know what is best.

But when we can let go of our expectations and be open to other options, we can make room for God to do what God will do. Sometimes that means a cure, but often it means a healing—of past hurts, fears or insecurities.

Letting go of our expectations opens us to endless possibilities.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, we had plenty of experiences of unmet expectations. Surgery and treatments didn’t work—the cancer came back with a vengeance—accompanied by more complications than we anticipated. And people often said or did things that were just not helpful, usually acting out of their own expectations.

Let go were the two words I said repeatedly.

And when I could let go of my need to be right or to be in control, I saw how God was healing me in unexpected ways. I wanted to continue to live in that state of openness, so I pledged to say yes to whatever was offered.

In the year after Jim died, saying yes led to all kinds of unexpected opportunities, including a trip to Paris! Saying yes kept me open and helped me see that God is bigger than anything I could imagine.

Sometimes, like Naaman, doing the thing that seems least likely to work is exactly what we need to do.

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Caring for an aging parent

My mother likes to quote her mother. Almost every conversation includes at least one, “As my mother used to say…” followed by some pithy comment from my grandmother.

These comments are all in Polish, the language my grandmother spoke, and my mother quotes her mother in Polish and then translates them into English. She gets great joy from repeating her mother’s words.

My grandmother was a farmer and her sayings are usually quite earthy.

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Although my grandmother lived in two countries (Poland and the U.S.), in each place, her life was fairly limited. She lived in small, rural communities in both countries, and her life was ordered by the seasons. She seemed quite content with the boundaries of her life in northern Michigan.

I knew my grandmother, having spent time every summer with her on the farm. She was always kind to me, and I felt safe with her. I was fortunate to be present when she died at age ninety-six.

My mother is now ninety-three. I moved home six years ago, in large part, to be near her, and I check on her several times a week. She loves to play cards and we usually get in a few games every week.

My mother is fiercely independent. She also has unrealistic expectations of herself and her capabilities.

She still drives, even though her eye doctor, primary care physician and physical therapist have all told her to stop. She denies that her reflexes are diminished in any way—or her hearing or her eyesight. She becomes very defensive when someone suggests otherwise.

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On the one hand, my mother wants to be left alone, to do as she pleases. But when she has a health scare, she wants help…until she is better. Then she denies she ever needed help. She was fine and we should have just left her alone.

It is a vicious circle.

When my father had a major stroke, my mother did not call 911. My father had been very clear that he did not want to go to the hospital nor be resuscitated. “If you walk in and think I am dead,” he used to say, “go out for another hour and then come back.” He dreaded hospitals and the thought of being kept alive by machines.

I have come to realize the great strength it took my mother to honor my father’s wishes. I am not that strong. When my mother is in distress, disoriented, or displaying other signs of serious illness, I cannot leave her, even though I know that is what she says she wants.

My aunt made the health care decisions for my grandmother, so my mother was spared the responsibility and the guilt. My grandmother died in hospital connected to machines. It is not what my mother wants, nor do I want it for her.

As anyone caring for an aging parent can probably appreciate, it is difficult to walk the fine line between supporting independence and ensuring safety.

I pray for wisdom.

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Speaking of faith

Reflecting on Colossians 1:1-8 the other morning, these words of St. Paul caught my attention:

“…we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the holy ones…”

I stopped reading to reflect.

I imagined the scene. Paul, someplace far away, writing to the Colossians of what he has heard about them. I wondered who told Paul of the Colossians’ faith. Was someone passing through Paul’s town who had been to Colossae? Had someone written to Paul?

And why did Paul take the time to write to the Colossians to tell them what he had heard? Had they been struggling and he felt they needed encouragement or praise? Or had Paul been struggling and hearing such good news overjoyed him?

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I wondered how the Colossians heard Paul’s praise. Did they post the letter for everyone to read? Did they offer spontaneous thanks to God for guiding them and giving them strength to live the Gospel? Did they boast to their neighbors in the next town about how Paul praised them?

And then I wondered if anyone is speaking of my faith. Has anyone heard of my faith in Jesus and the love I have for all the holy ones? Would anyone write a message like Paul’s to me to encourage or praise me?

I pondered this for a while, letting memories surface of positive things people have said to me, things related to how I live my faith. “Take it in,” my friend Jim used to tell me when I received praise or a compliment.

Brushing compliments aside, dismissing praise, would be more my style. Accepting compliments seemed to be a stepping-stone toward pride, as if I would become too proud if I accepted hearing good things about myself. I felt unworthy of praise and had great difficulty receiving compliments and accepting praise. I have worked on this—allowing myself to hear good things about myself and believe them—but I still struggle to take in good things people say about me.

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After pondering Paul’s praise of the Colossians for a while, I went back to reading the scripture passage and discovered that Epaphras was the one who had told Paul.

Who will speak for me? I wondered. Who is my Epaphras, talking about how my faith is growing and bearing fruit?

And for whom am I Epaphras? Or Paul? Do I praise others for their growth in faith? For their works on behalf of the holy ones? Am I passing along positive messages about others’ faith?

These thoughts have stayed with me all week and made me more aware of opportunities to share my faith and to offer praise and encouragement.

I want to be like Epaphras and Paul, telling of people’s good works, reflecting back to those in my life how their love is shining through and encouraging them with praise.

Seeing good works, acknowledging them and offering praise—three great practices to deepen my faith and grow in love.

Grow in forgiveness

I used to tease a priest friend when he went to hear the confessions of retired nuns at a local convent. At their age, what sins could they possibly have to confess? “I took the last slice of toast at breakfast even though I knew Sister Matilda wanted it,” I would suggest, or “I hid the remote so that no one could turn off my program.”

That memory came to mind the other day as I reflected on Luke 5:38.

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As I get nearer the age of those retired nuns, I have a greater understanding that God still invites me to change and be renewed every single day—no matter my age.

Perhaps my sins are not as outrageous as the ones I committed when I was younger, but I know I am still a long way from being healed and made whole. I can see how I am dragging into old age the fears and insecurities that I have battled all my life and those tendencies that move me away from God. I have made progress, but….

The reflection question in my prayer booklet relating to Luke 5:38 read: “Following Jesus requires a new way of living. What has been hardest for me to change to follow Christ?”

The word forgiveness popped into my mind.

For me to follow Jesus in a new way, I need to change something about forgiveness.

This must be a blind spot for me because I think of myself as being fairly forgiving. Yet, when I considered the question, forgiveness was the answer.

Is it, I asked God, that I need to be more forgiving of others or of myself? Do I need to give more or receive more forgiveness?

Probably both.

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I recently had the experience of seeing someone against whom I held a grudge. I had not seen him in six years and over that time, I had prayed to let go of my negative feelings toward him; I wanted to be free of him. Seeing him now, I was able to approach him with no anger. “I have forgiven him,” I said to myself, and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having given me this grace.

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But, obviously, I still have work to do in the area of forgiveness, or God would not have planted that word in my mind as “new wine.”

Like the retired nuns, I still sin. My thoughts and desires, where I give my energy, the grudges I nurse, my insecurities—are all old wine. Jesus keeps inviting me to something new, because to follow Jesus means continual renewal.

The teachings of Jesus offer new insights and challenges every day; each time I read Scripture, I am invited to dig deeper and see things in new ways.

These days, I am being invited deeper into forgiveness.

Jesus does not give up on us. He trusts that we are always capable of becoming the people we were meant to be. I love the hope in that.

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Live radically

Planted in my heart early in life was a desire to live the Gospel as the early Christians had, to live in community and share my possessions. This early Christian way of life was different from what I saw around me, radically different.

For a few years after college, I was affiliated with a congregation of Catholic Sisters, thinking I might become a nun. But when I decided not to enter the community, I was unsure what was next for me.

At the time, I was working for a small nonprofit, matching volunteers with people who have developmental disabilities for one-to-one advocacy relationships. It was important work that had a big impact on the people who were involved, but it did not feel radical enough for me.

Living in community as the early church had (or as a nun might) shaped not just work hours, but every hour of the day, and I wanted that—for my life to be wholly lived for God, to have God be the number one priority in my life. I wanted to invest every day in my God relationship and to be submerged in the spiritual, like a fish in the ocean.

During my garden year, I was continually led to pray with Matthew 25:31-46, the Final Judgment, and I gained greater clarity about how Jesus inhabits vulnerable people so that what we do for “the least” is what we do for Jesus. I remember replacing the word “for” with “to,” and seeing Jesus as the person who is hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, a stranger and imprisoned. “I am doing this (or not) to Jesus,” I would say.

That realization affected how I interacted with every vulnerable person. If I walked by a homeless person without at least saying hello, I knew I was bypassing Jesus, being rude and unfriendly. If I let an opportunity pass to visit someone in hospital or another institution, I knew I was neglecting Jesus, and I imagined Jesus tsk-tsking at me for my lack of concern.

It was not just some poor person I was neglecting; it was Jesus himself; I was deliberately choosing to ignore Jesus.

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After a year of discernment as to how to live Matthew 25 in the most radical way, I moved to a l’Arche community, which seemed pretty radical. Then, perhaps even more radical, I lived and worked with Mennonites.

And what I learned from four years of trying to live some radical way of life was that no one way of life is more radical than another and no one way is better. I had left everything familiar only to discover that the outer structure of my life had very little to do with my interior spiritual journey.

It turned out that the nonprofit work I had been doing was radical enough.

I realized that what helped me live the Gospel most radically was to make God my priority and to spend time in prayer every day; and I could do that anywhere.

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Spiritual experiences

During a recent radio interview, an author talked about a spiritual experience he had when he was eleven years old, and the interviewer asked if it wasn’t “unusual” for an eleven-year-old to be thinking about spiritual things.

The interviewer’s question and tone startled me. The word unusual translated to weird or odd for me, and all I heard was judgment. I thought, “Just because it didn’t happen to you does not mean it is unusual!”

In that moment, I remembered the times I have been called some version of unusual because of my spiritual experiences and how my fear of judgment made me resistant to sharing anything about my prayer life or my relationship with God.

The courage of some people to share their spiritual experiences has always amazed me. But I have not been that courageous. When I got the “isn’t it unusual…” response, I shut down.

I always wanted to fit in—not stand out, so I learned to keep my “God things” to myself, pondering them in my heart but telling only a few people.

Now, though, I am ready to own what others might label unusual. I have finally stopped worrying about fitting in—or at least stopped letting my worry silence me—and want to share what God has shown me. I have been so blessed by my relationship with God and my spiritual experiences; perhaps sharing them will bless others.

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This week I was in Philadelphia, the city where I spent most of my adult life, and I visited some old friends. I tested the waters of my newfound courage by speaking about some of my prayer experiences with friends who have known me for a long time but with whom I had not shared many of my spiritual experiences.

I told them about a particularly intense time of prayer that I call my garden year. This was after college, a time when I was uncertain about my future and was discerning what to do with my life.

During this year of prayer and discernment, I had several visions, including this one:

I saw myself in an old, stone cathedral, the kind with thick walls and no pews. I was lying prostrate on the floor and could feel the hardness of the floor and the coldness of the stone on my face and arms. Then the floor began to shift, and I was being raised up. The floor became a hand, lifting me and supporting me. “I’ve got you,” God said to me.

Reflecting on this vision, it seemed that God was telling me that no matter what kind of work I chose or where I chose to live, God would always be with me—holding me and protecting me. It was a great comfort to me during that time of uncertainty and anxiety.

In the years since my garden year, I have often recalled this vision and the message of God’s personal care for me. God’s love in that moment still comforts me.

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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