Leaves turn red and gold,
at the peak of their beauty,
and then they let go.
Leaves turn red and gold,
at the peak of their beauty,
and then they let go.
A friend had surgery last summer and post-operative complications led to lots of pain and additional surgeries. She is frustrated, fearful and depressed.
One day she said, “I keep asking God to take the pain away, to fix this, and God does nothing. How can I have faith?”
“That is not the kind of God I have,” I said.
My God is not like a plumber, someone to whom I show a problem and say, “just fix this.”
My God, like my family and friends, is someone with whom I have a relationship. In the same way I would not expect my family or friends to fix my problems, I don’t expect God to either.
My relationships are more about listening, accepting, supporting and loving.
And just as I don’t blame my family and friends for my troubles, I don’t blame God either. My God is not a punishing God, and I don’t believe God causes pain or suffering; I believe that pain and suffering are part of life. When I am facing a challenge, I approach God with the question, “What am I to learn from this?”
Often, the answer is to let go.
Looking back, I can see that many of my struggles have been exacerbated by my pride or stubbornness or belief that I am strong enough to handle anything. I tend to hold on too tightly to my expectations and my image of myself as being in control.
Sometimes it is difficult to learn lessons when I am in the middle of a painful situation, and I have to wait until the situation has passed to gain clarity.
Other times, though, I can see that if I let go of my pride and admit my vulnerability, the pain lessens. Just by surrendering my ego, by admitting that I need help, I can ease the burden.
I have learned that it is not only ok to accept my vulnerability, but that accepting my vulnerability is the way forward. I am human; I need help.
After I left l’Arche, brokenhearted and humiliated, I had an aha moment. “God holds all the cards,” I said one day, and as soon as I said those words, I was comforted by the truth of God’s presence in my life—not to take away difficulties, but ready to catch me when I fall, to console me and help me stand again.
I have always loved the image of the potter creating and re-creating. I think of God that way, always ready to send a Spirit of hope and new life to get me back on my feet.
Each of us faces challenges—health troubles, job losses, unmet expectations, etc. My faith tells me that God does not give me these challenges, nor can I expect God to remove them. My faith tells me that God will be with me through them, loving me, believing in me and wanting me to remember to let go of the illusion that I am in control.
The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.
After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”
Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?
Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.
My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.
What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?
We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.
How do we make sense of it?
In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?
I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.
Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.
If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?
I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.
Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.
Before my cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten years ago, I did not think much about cancer. Since her diagnosis, though, I have thought about it a lot. In the five years following her death, five other important people in my life died from cancer. How could I not think about it? Cancer invaded my life.
When my cousin was diagnosed, I wondered what I would do if it was me. Would I react as my cousin had?
After reflecting on that question for a while, I realized I could not possibly know what I would do. There is just no way to predict how one will react to a cancer diagnosis because so many factors come into play at the time of diagnosis.
Having worked at a cancer support center for the past four years, I understand that truth even more deeply.
While praying this morning for someone who is newly diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer, I realized I no longer think about what I might do if it was me. Instead, I try just to be present, to listen and to accept the decisions the person who has cancer is making.
This particular person was on my mind as I prayed St. Francis’ prayer his morning, and the words that jumped out at me were, “where there is sadness, joy.”
How can I speak joy into the sadness of this person’s life? I hear the anxiety in his wife’s voice and think of the pain he is experiencing; I feel their sadness.
And yet, as I talk with this couple, I notice little sparks of light at the edges of the darkness. A joke about how he is the cook in their relationship so being in the hospital is rescuing them from her cooking. Or how lucky they are to live near a national cancer institute so he can be assured of the most up-to-date treatment. Gratitude and joy creep in, even in the darkest moments
St Ignatius prayed, “Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty…give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.”
It is a prayer of surrender, of letting go.
A cancer diagnosis can be one of those moments in life when leaning into God may be the only thing we can do. Even if we put our bodies at the mercy of medical professionals, our spirits belong to God.
Both St. Francis and St. Ignatius—and others who have come to this place of understanding their complete dependence on God—know that God is truly all we need. Letting go of our desire for control and our illusions that we actually have control is the path to peace.
Cancer comes out of the blue. It can be life-changing and even life-destroying. Like all challenges in life, though, it can be the gift that leads us to true peace, freedom and even joy.
No matter the darkness that might invade my life, I hope I react with trust and hope.
“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.
“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.
But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.
I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.
At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.
When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.
I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.When I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.
In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.
“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.
Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.
Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.
“You are a reluctant prophet,” the retreat director said during our first meeting.
“I have heard that before,” I replied.
Months earlier, after reading his book Simply Soul Stirring—Writing as a Meditative Practice, I had written to Father Dorff and asked if he would help me with my writing. I had explained that God was inviting me to write, and that I was resistant. But now, I wanted to move against my resistance.
He agreed to a seven-day writing retreat. I flew to New Mexico, prepared to spend a week in a hermitage, writing.After talking with me for a short time in that first session, Father Dorff said, “No more books on writing or workshops or retreats. Just write.”
That was seven years ago.
Many of my retreats before that one dealt with my writing—or not writing. I had consistently heard the invitation to write, but I had resisted.
In my early twenties, people started suggesting I should write a book.
I think it was because I worked for the FBI, and I seemed an unlikely FBI employee. I was willful, obstinate and outspoken—not exactly bureaucrat material. Plus, I had strong beliefs about social justice.
After the FBI, people suggested I write about my work with people who were socially marginalized, and then l’Arche.
But I did not ever see any of that as book worthy.
It wasn’t until my late fifties that I actually submitted an essay that was published (or rather podcast). And then I submitted another to the local newspaper for the opinion page. My two published pieces.
And I started this blog.
I don’t know what it is about writing a book, but I know I am resistant.
Moving against my resistance has been a major part of my spiritual life for as long as I have had a spiritual life. God continually invites me to move past rigid rules and self-esteem issues.
I just don’t see myself as an author, even if God and other people may.
So what, I wonder, would I have to say that could fill a book?
Still, I want to move against my resistance, especially my resistance to sharing my story.
Last year, I heard about an author who conducts memoir-writing workshops, and I thought maybe I could attend one of her workshops. While checking out her calendar for the upcoming year, Father Dorff’s words come back to me. “No more…workshops. Just write.” Ugh!My week in New Mexico helped me to be more comfortable writing and sharing my story. Father Dorff received my story without judgment. He accepted my vulnerability and encouraged me to continue to be open to where God was leading me.
Father Dorff suggested that I allow God to direct not only what I write but also who reads it. He encouraged me to let go of controlling the process and let God be the director.
So, for now, I continue to blog and try to be more open to next steps.
About fifteen years ago, I got a bike as a Christmas gift. It is an expensive bike, with twenty-four speeds! It is not what I would have chosen—I would have picked one of those no-gear granny bikes with a wicker basket on front. I don’t even need hand-brakes. But this is the bike I got and still have.
I have thought of giving it away or selling it and buying a less-complicated bike, but I haven’t.
While riding last night, it occurred to me that I am resistant to this bike. I have not embraced it, appreciated it for the gift it is. Why is that? I wondered.
Resistance is a funny thing. Sometimes it can be so obvious, but other times it can be subtle.
My first spiritual director often made suggestions that she thought would be helpful. She suggested I pray for fifteen minutes at the same time every day, and she sometimes suggested books. I usually said, “No, thanks,” or said nothing and didn’t do what she suggested.
One of her book recommendations was An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum.
A year or so later, a women in my book club proposed this book. The title sounded vaguely familiar, but like most things I resist, I had blocked it from my mind and did not recall that this was the book my spiritual director had recommended.
The book was transformational (and I highly recommend it). At some point, though, I remembered that this was the same book that I had refused to read.
Why had I been resistant to this book? Why am I resistant to nonfiction in general? Am I afraid I will be invited to change?“Stubbornness is not a virtue,” my current spiritual director recently told me. I didn’t think it was, even though I often act as if it is.
Stubborn is just another word for resistance. There are others: obstinate, pig-headed, inflexible….None of which I want to be.
But, there I was last night, riding my bike, when it occurred to me that I am resistant to this gift. This resistance is much more subtle; it has taken me fifteen years to even see it!
I think the bike says something about me which is not true. I think the bike says, I am a serious bike rider, which I am not. The most I ever ride is five miles, and at a leisurely pace. When people invite me to go for bike rides, I decline. I fear I could not keep up and that I would be a burden.
And there it is—fear of disappointing.
How much of my resistance is connected to my fear of disappointing or fear of failure?God invites me to move against my resistance—to welcome, accept and embrace what is offered. To look at the world through eyes of awe, wonder and amazement. God invites me to say yes to all that life offers. Accept the bike, I told myself. Embrace the bike.
Surrender to God and he will do everything for you. Antiphon in the Liturgy of the Hours Office of Readings for Tuesday of Holy Week.
I can easily forget that God is in charge. In my relationships, my work, my volunteer activities and life in general, I can think that I am running the show and that everything depends on me. And then I can feel burdened, pressured to perform and sometimes overwhelmed.
Breathe, Madeline, I tell myself when I am feeling overwhelmed. You are not God. Everything does not depend on you. Surrender. Let God be God. Trust God.God reminds me all that I do really belongs to God. I have a part, but it is just a part. My job is to add my piece to bringing about the Kingdom—in some small way. I need to remember that God holds the whole picture.
Letting go and believing that God really is in charge challenges my trust and control issues.
I am a doer by nature, someone who jumps in and gets things done. I like accomplishing things, and I like challenges. The bigger the challenge, the more I enjoy it.
There is a line, though, between using my gifts and talents to further a mission and believing that my gifts and talents are the only thing that can accomplish the mission.
My personality type on the Enneagram is the Eight, also known as The Challenger. The Eight is said to be “powerful, dominating, self-confident, decisive, willful and confrontational.” Oh yeah, that’s me for sure.
God seems to play off my Eightness, my innate love of a challenge. My work life has been a succession of small nonprofits that were facing uphill battles. It is as if God hears me repeatedly saying, “Put me in, Coach,” even though I don’t remember ever saying it. But, once I am in, I am all in, taking responsibility and getting things done.
When I start to feel overwhelmed, though, I know that I have moved from being a doer to being a controller. It is then that I need to surrender to God and trust that he will do everything for me. It is then that I need to remember that God is really in charge.My goal is to keep balance—to acknowledge my gifts and skills while remembering that the work is ultimately God’s. When I can let go and trust that God is in charge, my work and my life run smoother. Obstacles diminish; perspective is restored.
A Biblical image that helps me regain balance and trust is of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were put into a fiery furnace because they would not turn from God and bow to the King. But rather than being burned God sends an angel to deliver them because they trusted God (Daniel 3:95)
Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who sent his angel to deliver the servants who trusted in him. God, send your angel to me.
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.Once 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.Abide 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.The 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.One 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.I 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.