To Begin Again…

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetEach year the bluebells at Parklands Nature Reserve near our home in Bloomington, Illinois faithfully announce the new spring season.

“ALL LIFE IS IN THE HANDS OF GOD.” — The Rule of Benedict 1

“Life is made up of a series of opportunities to begin again.” 1 I find hope, and a bit of excitement, in that thought. Looking back, I see that life has given me many opportunities to start anew.  One of the most recent was leaving our ministry and life in the Dominican Republic and moving back to the United States. This was an all-out, all-in, out-of-the-box experience that lasted almost ten years.

While there are no pat answers or specific steps one takes to begin again (and I so wish there were), I do see some life rhythms that have developed in those times of change and transition. They are not necessarily in this order, rather, they seem to be intermingled in my life pattern. Here are some stages I have passed through, not always gracefully, but always covered by God’s grace.

  1. LETTING GO (People, Places, and Circumstances) …

“It is hard to let go of the past, and yet, until we do, there is no hope whatsoever that we can ever gain from the future.” 1

It seems that all new beginnings bring with them an opportunity to let go (of someone or something) and to let God.  The late poet Mary Oliver wrote: “This is a beautiful world so long as you don’t mind a little dying.” Life contains many deaths.  As we recently walked through Holy Week and experienced the Easter Sunday resurrection, we saw that when one gives oneself to death/dying, beautiful things can come about.

I have been encouraged in this letting go process as I read…

“Everyone has to put down some part of their past sometime.  Everyone makes a major life change at some time or other. Everyone has to be open to being formed again. The only thing that can possibly deter the new formation is if we ourselves refuse to let go of what was. If we cling to the past, the future is closed to us.”1   These statements certainly give me reason to pause. I desire to see change in my life as a possibility of God creating something new.

  1. WALKING WITH JESUS. PAYING ATTENTION. STAYING ALERT…

“I have a deep awareness of myself as a soul who is being led somewhere.” 2

I agree with this sentiment and am learning to trust that God is in control of my “what’s next?”.  This stage involves paying attention to where God is and where He wants to take me. Listening to my spiritual longings, enjoying that which is God in the present moment, and attending to what God is opening up for me next. I can gently ask myself questions like, What animates me? and What do I want to devote myself to in this season of life?

“Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive.  Then go and do that, because the world needs people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman

Questions that help me discern God’s leading are, “Is this person, this group, this place, calling out the best in me? Is this where I fit? Is this the place where I can most become what God created me to be? Is this the path on which I see the footsteps of God most clearly in front of me?” 1

All this takes some time and patience. I can look at what God says through nature. How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun. It gets ready to “bear fruit”. I like to think that I am always getting ready so God can move in my life. I want to be continually growing toward being deeply satisfied spiritually and bearing fruit that will last (John 15:16).

  1. LIVING ON MISSION…

“For this purpose, have I come.” — Jesus Christ

For what purpose have I come? What is my mission in life or, better said, what part of God’s mission am I to play now?

“To be fully active, fully awake, fully alive.” — Thomas Merton

This stage could also be described as “moving on with purpose.” My focus is to become the best version of myself 3—to make moment by moment choices that lead me to celebrate and defend my best self. To do what I can, where I can, how I can, right now to make the world a better place. My greatest strength as a human being is my ability to make a difference in the lives of other people.  To speak into the lives of others. Or as my spiritual director, Sr. Betty Jean, encourages me, “You be you, Cherry.”

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” — St Catherine of Siena

My husband and I spent the first three months of 2019 visiting the Dominican Republic, an island bursting with God’s goodness—its awe-inspiring ocean, sandy beaches, majestic mountains, tropical flowers, and lush vegetation. Walking one day amidst all His glory, I felt God say to me, “Tend well what I have given you.”  I love the words tend to and cultivate.  Maybe it’s my farm background, but these words carry a lot of weight with me.  They have value.  Tending and cultivating that which God has gifted me includes caring for myself, my health-physical, emotional and spiritual– my marriage and family, and my unique gifts, such as writing, recovery, and bi-cultural living.

I believe that we do best when we know ourselves, our strengths, and our limits in the moment, and take good care of ourselves. When our lives are too full or we are living too fast–what my husband’s mentor calls “going over the speed limit in life” — we don’t take the time to reflect, ponder, or really put ourselves in another’s shoes. We can’t truly love well.  And, “the role of committed Christians is always to grow richer themselves so that they can give richly to others.” 1

“My work is loving the world.” — Mary Oliver

As spring comes to visit us again and we see evidence of new beginnings all around us, may we drink it all in, open to the new in our own lives, and simply pray…

“God, grant that I may love you always; then, do with me as you will.”

—Stations of the Cross prayer

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetOur new season amidst God’s goodness in Central Illinois.

1 THE RULE OF BENEDICT: A Spirituality for the 21st century by Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

2 GIFT OF THE RED BIRD by Paula D’Arcy

3 PERFECTLY YOURSELF by Matthew Kelly

 

POWER, POWER, WHO’S GOT THE POWER?

 

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“Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine;” (Ephesians 3:20)

 

The first step of twelve step recovery programs reads as follows: “We admitted we were powerless over________(insert addictive behavior) and our lives had become unmanageable.”

These past few weeks, I have been blessed to work with a young woman struggling to get clean and sober and to stay that way.  I am once again reminded how fragile sobriety is. A gift of God’s grace and mercy.  This is also the time of year when I celebrate my sobriety anniversary.  God willing, April 6 will mark 30 years of continuous sobriety for me.  I stand amazed at this landmark, and I ponder how my life might be speaking to me through these current life experiences.

My newly sober friend is coming to see that, while she may be quite successful in many areas of her life, she is unable to manage her drinking.  She is powerless over the addiction. The obsession and the craving overtake her. In my case, while I no longer struggle with cravings for alcohol, I still battle with obsessive thinking toward the many people, places, and things in my life over which I am completely powerless.

“When we are powerless, let us be quiet and let God act.”

The first three steps in addiction recovery can be summarized as:

1) I can’t, 2) God can, 3) So I’ll let him! Or, as I’ve also heard it said, “God is, and I am not.”

A longtime favorite read of mine is THE RULE OF BENEDICT: A Spirituality for the 21st century by Joan Chittister, O.S.B.  The prologue counsels us: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Holy One to supply by the help of grace.”

Father Martin (You can find him on YouTube) suggests that God wants to be asked to help us.  He wants the alcoholic to acknowledge to Him, “You have what I don’t have, may I please have some?”

My life and times are in your hands, Lord.

These and many other wise words that I have heard and read over the years all point to a power shift from self-reliance to God-reliance. I am asked to trade my poisonous pride for God’s humility.  I accept the truth of my limitations and weaknesses with the hope that my loving and powerful God will do for me what I cannot do for myself. I learn to trust that God is in charge; it’s His plan I follow, not mine.  I can be open to His surprises and miracles. I have always been drawn to the humility of Mary’s words, “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

I accept me as me and I let God be God.

My new friend in recovery accurately describes the process: “God doesn’t want me to ‘get it right’ or ‘get it together’ or be self-reliant or have a lot of willpower. He wants me to fall on my face and admit: “I can’t do it! Help me!!”

Every mass and many recovery meetings include a moment when we all hold hands and recite together the Lord’s Prayer. Linking arms in community, we acknowledge our willingness to let our Father God take us by the hand and lead us. We sense that we are united to each other and to God.  It can be a moment imbued with power.

“For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.'” (Isaiah 41:13)

 As we pray, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. A brilliant and powerful strategy of the twelve-step recovery program is to only focus on a 24-hour time period—one day. To live in the present. Most of us feel we can do just about anything for one day. This beloved prayer affirms that God’s plan for us is that we live one day at a time asking Him to provide what we need for that day–His power. It is a simple program because God’s ways are simple. He is tender, yet powerful. He will provide us with two things we desperately need: a change of mentality and a new style of living.

The whole of the recovery program hinges on Step One’s honest admission of powerlessness. Steps One, Two, and Three form the basics of the program—the power shift.  A newcomer to recovery is advised to “stick to the basics”.  Often when someone is struggling in their recovery, it’s suggested that they go back to the basics. The truth is that we should always stick to the simple basics because it is in following the basics each 24 hours that we stay clean, sober, and mentally and emotionally sane. This is true whether you are new to recovery or getting ready to celebrate 30 years clean and sober.

I have learned so much about myself and about God as I have walked the road of recovery.  I can replace the lie(s) I have been believing with these truths:

  • Our weaknesses will take us to God IF we let them.
  • Telling the truth to myself and others releases me from the power that the addiction has over me.
  • Whatever the problem or situation, I need to get the focus off of me and onto God.
  • I have to reach for recovery and reach for God.
  • Day by day I simply “Do the next right thing.” Simple, yet full of power.

So, who has the power? God does.

I’ll end with a translation of the Lord’s prayer you may not have read before. May you be blessed by it today.

Palm treeAbba, let our lives honor your name

Let your home be with us

Let your ways be our ways

Let heaven and earth be as one

Give us today simply the bread of tomorrow

Forgive us our violences as fully

As we have forgiven others theirs.

Do not let us stumble; give us refuge from evil ways.

Yours, O God, is the place, the power and the wonder. 

Peace, now and forever. Amen.

 

YEARNING FOR LIFE*

“As a deer yearns for running streams, so I yearn for you, my God.” Psalm 42:1

Almost three decades ago, I was invited to my first silent retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Nauvoo, Illinois.  The nuns directing the retreat had chosen chapter 55 from the book of Isaiah as the theme for the weekend.  Throughout our time with them, we would read and meditate upon this piece of sacred Scripture.  The chapter begins with this invitation:

“Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty… (Isaiah 55:1)

And continues with this instruction:

“Pay attention, come to me; listen, and you will live.” (Isaiah 55:3a)

And concludes with this promise:

“Yes, you will go out with joy and be led away in safety. Mountains and hills will break into joyful cries before you and all the trees of the country side clap their hands. Cypress will grow instead of thorns, myrtle instead of nettles. And this will be fame for Yahweh, an eternal monument never to be effaced.”          (Isaiah 55:12,13)

These verses invite us to live, show us how to live, and paint a vibrant picture of what that life can look like. The result is that we are transformed and God is glorified.

The years have not seemed to dull the vivid memories I have of that weekend. A cherished remembrance is the softly wrinkled face and twinkling eyes of an older nun who served coffee and tea at the end of the food line throughout the weekend.  She spoke not a word but her eyes, smile, and gentleness drew me in and made me long for more of what she had.  I now would describe that moment as a time when the Divine broke through to my everyday reality, beckoning me to come closer, to more deeply explore what it means to be a Christ follower.

Since that silent retreat, I have continued to pursue God and an authentic faith. I believe that God prompted me to open that door and my heart just a little bit.  As it says in Scripture, “Jesus replied: Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him.”  (John 14:23)  I desire our loving God to make a home in me.

What is more important and precious to me is that God has continued to pursue me.  In so many unique ways.  He has sent me numerous people and experiences that reflect Him and draw me closer, into the mystery.  I have been blessed by the counsel of so many “wise ones”.  A gift that has been essential to my journey.  I have encountered wise ones in recovery and wise ones in the faith who are following Christ and model for me how to do the same. Who are the wise ones in your life?  Cherish them, listen and observe them, and take heed to follow their example.  Pray that God send you wise ones and then pay attention.  My wise ones have taught me much about God and much about myself.

Recently I read, “Nothing can compare to the drama of exploring my full potential as a human being”. ** Becoming more fully and more passionately myself so I can actively contribute to life and genuinely love others.  In my current season of life, I long to grow old with a sense of purpose. I believe that “time is always and forever an invitation to growth”. *

Striving to become all you can be is attractive.  Recovery programs are based on attraction rather than promotion.  So is Christianity.  Don’t tell me, rather show me. Does your life intrigue others? Does mine? I certainly desire that.

Since entering the decade of our 60’s, my husband and I have attended many funerals.  Some as a result of sudden deaths.  This certainly can take one’s breath away and cause one to pause and ponder. Many life lessons can be learned. One that I’m particularly drawn to is “Carpe Diem”—to seize the day, each day.   In a thoughtful book that I just finished reading, I was challenged to make a list – “Before I die, I want to_____________” * What a wonderful way to start this new year. I challenge you to make that list for yourself.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, Lord.” St. Augustine—His words echo anew for me today.

As we enter the season of Lent, a time to pause and reflect, may we take these thoughts and questions to heart—may we spend ample time in the classroom of silence.

 

*How to Live—What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community by Judith Valente. (This post has been inspired by this beautiful book which I highly recommend reading.)

**Courage to Change—One Day at a Time in Al-Anon II

DON’T FIGHT YOUR LESSON

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I awoke the other morning with these six words clearly in my head—“It’s your lesson. Don’t fight it.” As I made my way to coffee and my morning spot, I felt a sense of peace come over me, knowing that God was in this, lovingly in charge. God is in our present waiting for us there.  Before I share more of my present moment, let me give a brief backdrop of my year up to this point.

At the dawn of each new year, I ask God for a word or a theme for the upcoming year. This year I felt God say, “Holiness”. I sensed that I had a longing for this but wasn’t sure what the word meant for me. Paying attention to what I had been reading gave me some clues. Here are some thoughts I have written in my journal so far this year. I write them as if God were talking to me.

Pay attention. Be grateful. Live aware.

Linger over your life. Ponder the precious things.

Be all I created you to be–that’s holiness.

And from Holy Scripture: “He [God] must grow greater, I must grow less.”  (John 3:30)

As I write today, Dave and I are back visiting the Dominican Republic. The past two years, our visits have been deeply nourishing to our souls. Before we came, I prayed that I would be open to what God would have for us this year and not come with my own expectations. I’m grateful that God prompted me to pray that way because the first few weeks of this visit have been quite different from past years.  Some family matters back home have required our attention so I’ve not been able to unplug the way I like to. And I have struggled with that a bit.

With this in mind I go back to those six words God gave to me the other morning: “It’s your lesson. Don’t fight it.”  Once God gave me the gentle reminder that I am to live out well the life He gives me day by day, I was able to sense His presence and strength, and to go forward even with some excitement toward what lies ahead.

I first asked myself, “Can I do it differently this time?”  When a familiar lesson comes back around, it is an opportunity to grow and be changed by the experience.  That is so hopeful. An occasion to dig deeper with God if I linger with God rather than fight life as it presents itself.

As I was pondering, praying, and paying attention to my life, I read the following:

“We should always be willing to face our shortcomings with humility, courage, and hope. When we admit we have big problems, we can start looking for big solutions. We are not here to solve problems; the problems are here to solve us. We do not do things and solve problems merely to get them out of the way so that we can get on with life. Doing things and solving problems are very much a part of life, and every moment of life is an opportunity to become a-better-version-of-yourself. But we need to be conscious of this truth in order to reap the harvest of the moment. In every situation in my life, in every problem, every difficulty, I know that if I allow the values and principles of the Gospel to guide me, it will turn out for the best. It will not always turn out as I wish, but I will be a better person for having lived the Gospel in that situation, and because of that, my future will be richer.” **

There is much to think about and reflect upon in these words. They help me to accept the reality of my life, day by day.  And they take me back to my theme for this year. I believe living this way is holy living. Living aware that there is always more going on than what meets the human eye. Attune to what is really Real. Remembering that God is in our present, waiting for us there. This type of holiness is attractive and contagious.  It intrigues others, allures them, and can even change them. As I change, my community changes. That’s how God works.

While I will relish my idle time here, grateful for its value to my life, I pray I can also sink into the inevitable problems of life, viewing them as a path to holiness.  Trusting that God delights in weakness that tries.

As I watch another gorgeous Dominican sunrise, I pray–

cabarete sunrise

Lord, please help me to walk in my lesson today—my path to holiness.

 

**Rediscover Catholicism—A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion and Purpose by Matthew Kelly

OPENING MY HEART

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One of my favorite priests begins daily mass by encouraging us in a soft voice with a twinkle in his aging eyes, “Let us begin by opening our hearts to God…” Later, he invites us to “Lift up our hearts to the Lord.”  Since I began my journey to follow Christ, I have been intrigued by how often the word “heart” is found in the Scriptures. It is one of those words that I have been drawn to without fully understanding its meaning. It has seemed to me a weighty word, packed with significance.  Our heart is crucial to our physical life but equally vital to our emotional and spiritual well-being.

When I began a program of recovery in my mid-thirties, my first sponsor suggested that rather than relying solely on my brain, I might begin to exercise another organ, my heart.  They say that we stop growing emotionally when our addiction takes over.  If this is true, I began recovery with the emotions of a 16-year-old.  I had a lot of growing up to do.  I was trying to live my life with a heart that had been severely wounded—initially by others, then later by my own hand, choices, and decisions. You could say that I needed a heart transplant.

As I moved forward in recovery and began “growing along spiritual lines,” as the program suggests, I joined a women’s Bible Study.  One of the women, who later became a close friend, talked about “guarding your heart.”  Again, I wasn’t sure what that phrase actually meant, but it seemed a wise thing to do, and I wanted to know more.

I began reading passages like—

              “God, create in me a clean heart, renew within me a resolute spirit.” (Psalm 51:10) — I sure wanted that.

I found comfort in—

              “God is close to the brokenhearted, to those crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) — I have come to believe that it is in my pain that God is closest to me, whether I realize it or not.

I found hope in—

               “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good… for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) — This can be my future as God’s Spirit works in me.

And my favorite—

              “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) — Mary is also described as “pondering all these things in her heart.”  That is a beautiful picture of a wise woman—reflecting and going to God before acting, living a life of faithfulness to love and goodness.

Along the way, I have learned more about the heart—

*A wounded heart cannot see correctly, so when I’m hurting my perspective is not accurate.

*A hurt, resentful heart makes me ugly while a pure, clean, healthy, whole heart makes me beautiful in God’s eyes.

*We use the phrase “Don’t lose heart” to encourage someone not to give up or lose hope.

I will carry my heart with me my whole life, so it makes sense that taking care of it should be a high priority for me. As we begin 2019, let’s look at the condition of our hearts. Sit quietly and ask God to show you. Does someone come to mind? Does an old hurt bubble to the surface? God’s Spirit is so faithful to lead us in this endeavor. I was recently asked, “Are you willing to look at your dark side more than ever this year?”  I want to say, “Yes”.

These are just a few of God’s precious words in Scripture that speak to me and help me along the way—some of my favorites.  What are yours? I encourage you to write them down or maybe even do a word study on “heart.”

I want to live my life with a heart wide open, or wholeheartedly.  I don’t want to hold back.  How about you?

I’ll close with a prayer I recently read—

              “O God, sow your Word once more in our hearts today; till patiently the soil of our souls bring forth a rich harvest, so that all may find nourishment for body and spirit through the lives of your people.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

 

 

 

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JOURNEYING OLD ROUTE 66—CONTEMPLATIVE STYLE

“Each man’s life represents a road to himself.” Herman Hesse

 In recent years, my husband has periodically mentioned that he would like to take me on a road trip in a red convertible.  I would hear him, but I didn’t pay attention to what those words really meant.  Even though my practice of centering prayer and study of Benedictine spirituality have taught me to do just that—Pay attention. Listen. Let life soak in.

My husband kept his word and on Wednesday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, he and I went to 7:00 am mass, came home, and packed up our blue (not red) Mini Cooper convertible. I grabbed the Route 66 guidebooks and an Angel of God prayer card a friend had just given my husband. We hopped in the car donning our Old Route 66 t-shirts, full of hopeful excitement. We were ready for an adventure.  We had about three weeks of time available and no reservations made.  Our hearts were open to where God would lead.

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

Just south of Springfield, Illinois, we came upon our first landmark: Our Lady of the Highways, located on private property along the highway to remind travelers of potential dangers and offer a place to pray.  An elderly couple care for the shrine.  We paused and prayed, struck by the simplicity and significance of the moment.  We knew we were in God’s hands.

Further along our drive in Eureka, Missouri, we came upon the Black Madonna Shrine, the work of a Polish monk who labored from 1938 until his death in 1960. It consists of an open-air chapel and seven grottos with devotional statues adorned with shells, jewelry, and other ordinary materials collected by Brother Luszcz. An elderly gentleman who lives on the property quietly sat at the back of the chapel ready to help or answer any questions.  We sunk into the moment enjoying the unique beauty of this simple creation of love. I lit a candle.

The next day we visited Merrimac Caverns. Traveling in the fall means you avoid the crowds and get the full attention of the very social and informative tour guides.  The scale and grandeur of these caverns is a delight to behold. I found myself thinking, “Yesterday we saw in the shrines what man can do for God. Today we see what God did for man!” That thought would visit me again many times as we traveled west across stunning countryside.

We experienced Missouri true to our guidebook’s description: “an excellent drive over hills and through woods and meadows.” * I would characterize the people as simple, unassuming, God-fearing, kind, helpful, open, and trusting.  I sensed no striving, rather they seem happy to be where they are, not wanting to go someplace else.  Content with the life God has given them.  That spoke to me.

We then moved on to Texas where there is still that feel of the “wild, wild west”.  “The almost limitless emptiness of the countryside” * drew me into the moment, allowing me to cultivate my own interior silence as we drove along.  Adrian, Texas marks the mid-way point of the route. We had traveled over 1,000 miles.  We met fellow sojourners from Europe who had flown to Chicago, rented a car, and planned to drive the entire route to Los Angeles, California.  Before leaving Texas, we visited a newer site, the “Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ”, billed as the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. The complex also includes life size Stations of the Cross. It was encouraging to see so many tributes to God along the way.

We went to Sunday mass in Clinton, Oklahoma.  Greeters handed out small, hand carved crosses to all visitors. A nice touch–hospitality Benedictine style.   I found the landscape of Oklahoma–its red colored soil, solitary windmills and cattle lazily grazing –all so peaceful and calming.

New Mexico offered us the peaceful isolation of small Spanish communities and larger cities like Santa Fe where we stopped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral just in time for afternoon mass in the enchanting side chapel. One of many coincidences that reminded us of God’s presence and guidance.

We veered off the route for the most impactful part of our trip—a four day stay at Pecos Benedictine Monastery. To describe our time here would require a separate telling. This community of eight monks, one sister, and one resident oblate captured my heart.  We stayed here during a week when there were no other visitors, so we had these sweet souls to ourselves.  We prayed with them, ate our meals together in silence, and spent some evenings getting to know a bit more about Abbot Aiken and the history of the monastery. We took walks around the grounds which included a grand lake surrounded by a simple walking path. The mountains enveloped us, insulating us from the outside world.  We were steeped in majesty and silence.

We celebrated the Feast of Queen Mary while there.  Abbot Aiken reflected on Mary’s “yes” –her consent, humility, and obedience. When we left, I wrote in my journal, “Today I have felt so FULL of love for all. What a gift.” I don’t think I could have asked for better fruit from this trip.

As we began our drive back to Illinois, I sensed God inviting me to “trade my unsettledness for surrender to Him”.  I returned home more surrendered.  More in love with God and with my husband.  More aware of the Divine. Tangible fruit of the contemplative way of life.

 

*EZ 66 Guide for Travelers, Jerry McClanahan