Often as a new month approaches and I am considering what I will share in my blogpost, I reflect back on the past month and the lessons it has brought me. Early last month, I listened to a podcast with Bishop Robert Barron titled How to Discern God’s Will for Your Life. I was drawn to its message and shared it with many of my friends. You can find it on You Tube.
Bishop Barron suggests that when making decisions, we keep in mind first and foremost:
What is the path of greatest love?
Or, what is the demand of love in this present situation? How would Jesus walk through this? What path opens up my capacity to love? While these are excellent questions, they are not answered easily or quickly. But I believe they are a very wise place to start. Surrendering to God with a willingness to pray, to wait, and to watch for God’s movement.
In situations involving others, my mind naturally wants to go to what I think the other person or persons may be thinking or wanting. Next, I add what I think or want, and soon my mind gets very messy or cluttered. Fortunately, God’s grace breaks in and tenderly reminds me to go to Him and ask Him to sort this all out—What does God want? How does God see this all? Ultimately, I want what God wants. If I let God calm my spirit and give Him time with the situation, clarity will come. God will grant me His wisdom. I want to keep in mind that we all are continually changing. There is always more to know about another person, about myself, and about any given situation.
I’m reminded of the well-known Scripture passage, 1 Corinthians 13, that starts with:
Love is patient, love is kind…
And ends with the promise:
Love prevails. God prevails.
That is what I truly desire. God and Love.
God is so patient and tender with all of my shortcomings. I want to be that way with others. In a recent conversation with my youngest daughter, I shared that as I age, I’m drawn to friends who want the best for me and allow me to walk through the process of discerning what that “best” is. And I want to do the same for others. I believe the way of love gives us all that freedom.
“Trying to change other people is futile, foolish, and certainly not loving.” Courage to Change
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image.” Thomas Merton
So this month, let there be love and let it begin with me.
“Wisdom comes to rest in a good heart.” Proverbs 14:33
This summer I have been reflecting back on how my life has been shaped and continues to be formed or transformed by the communities to which I belong. For over three decades, I have been blessed to be a part of twelve step recovery groups. Here is a recent reflection in a recovery devotional called Courage to Change.
“Our Suggested Closing says that though you may not like all of us, you’ll love us in a very special way—the same way we already love you. In other words, every meeting can be an opportunity to practice placing principles above personalities. Most of us are highly aware of the personalities of people around us. Instead of getting lost in petty likes and dislikes, it is important to remember why we come to meetings. We all need each other in order to recover.
I don’t have to like everybody, but I want to look deeper to find the spirit that we share in common. Perhaps I can find peace with each person by reminding myself of those things that draw us together—a common interest, a common belief, a common goal. I will then have a resource for strength rather than a target for negative thinking. I will have placed principles above personalities.
Today’s Reminder: I will keep an open mind toward each person I encounter today. If I am ready to learn, anyone can be my teacher.
The open door to helpful answers is communication based on love. Such communication depends on awareness of and respect for each other’s well-being and a willingness to accept in another what may not measure up to our own standards and expectations.”
This type of non-judgmental, open, and accepting attitude is one of the reasons I continue to attend meetings. I need to be reminded of how I truly want to live day by day. I am offered a design for living that works. I’ve heard it said that God’s Kingdom is most powerful where and when we least expect it. This was true when I walked through the doors of my first meeting. It still proves true in life today. God surprises me by showing up in unexpected places, IF I’m paying attention.
I came into the rooms of recovery with a very wounded heart. I had spent time in adulthood attempting to hide those wounds or to mend them myself. I had failed. Deep down I didn’t think I was capable of really loving well. I had lost my way and let go of the spiritual beliefs and values that had been my foundation from youth. I judged myself and everyone else very harshly.
“Never trust your tongue when your heart is bitter. Hush until you heal.”
I needed healing—physical, emotional, mental, and, most of all, spiritual healing. My heart was broken enough to be open and slightly hopeful that I could be healed. Many years later, I learned that our souls can be endangered by discord, and that we cannot let the hurting, hard heart drive our bus. I had lived many years in discord, and my heart was hard. I needed to step back, pay attention as best I could, and trust in the wisdom of others who had gone before me. I slowly began to put my trust in God.
“We can let down the barriers of our hearts and souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in. God can roll away the stone to your heart.”—Pope Francis
The twelve steps were the beginning of a return to the spiritual path—the faith of my youth but now through the mind and heart of an adult. God began to slowly and gently chip away at what I had allowed to stick to me. Together, God and I began to clear away the clutter so that I could learn to listen deeply. Today, I can pay attention to and appreciate the gentle wisdom of this world of wonders. I can look for sacred implications in the everyday. I can feel the warmth of God’s healing love as I am made new, again and again.
“Bless the work of our hands and hearts. God is glorified by the holiness of His people’s hearts.”
As my focus has slowly shifted off of myself and on to God and others, I am learning to view life and others thoughtfully. My heart is ready to receive God’s graces and share that love with others. I’ve heard our relationship with God described as two trapeze artists—the flyer and the catcher. I just need to fly, trusting that I will be caught.
This gentler approach extends to the other relationships in my life. As I watch someone make decisions or navigate their life in a way different from me, I want to keep in mind that they are a mature adult who has most likely thoughtfully considered their options. They are doing their best to make decisions wisely. I want to respect and honor them in that process just as I want to respect and honor my decisions, aware that if new information comes along, we each can change our minds. There are many times that it is best to simply allow others to work their way through the hard points in life. To pray and trust God in the process. Above all, to judge not. I trust that God can bridge our differences with the fire of Divine Love. God never withholds His love from me. I don’t want to withhold my love from others who may see things differently from me. I want to keep a good, soft heart so that God’s wisdom can enter in.
“Jesus, you know the strengths and weaknesses of the human heart. Share with us your patience and compassion; remind us that another may carry a cross beyond our imagining.”
Quotes taken from People’s Companion to the Breviary, The Liturgy of the Hours with Inclusive Language
I have always loved summertime—its warmth and relaxed, slower pace. For me, this summer is a break from my coursework and a chance to explore our new environment here in Arkansas. Since I don’t have reading and writing homework assignments for the next two months, I’m enjoying reviewing some of my reflection assignments. Last year in my Spiritual Classics class, we studied some of the great spiritual writers in Christian history. Our first assignment was The Confessions of Saint Augustine. For this month’s blog, I’d like to share my reflection on a portion of this work. This is Augustine’s life story, and we have much to learn from our stories. I found myself in Augustine’s story, and I pray that you may find yourself in this reflection.
“You (God) have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
I heard this quote of Augustine’s many years ago, and have always been drawn to it as deep truth. I have even quoted it to others, but after spending time with this saint reading this section of Confessions, I sense God’s Spirit deepening this truth in me. I purchased Confessions as a used book and upon opening it, I saw this inscription: “St Teresa once wrote of Augustine’s Confessions – ‘I found myself in them.’ May you have a similar experience.” After reading this section, I feel blessed that I can say that I have found myself in these pages as well. I relate both as a sinner and as a mother.
I was left encouraged by his story—a story of freedom, of God’s presence and faithfulness in the seemingly slow transformation process, and God’s prevailing grace. I related to taking wrong paths that seemed right at the time. My ego definitely reigned! I too had the false idols of money, power, education, prestige, and relationships. I especially resonated with Augustine’s over-desire to hear the words, “Well done! Well done!” While many of the other idols have fallen away, God is showing me that my desire for human approval is still too strong. I join Augustine in praying,
“Grant this, so that you (God) may grow sweet to me above all the allurements that I followed after. May I love you most ardently, may I cling to your hand with all my heart…You are my king and my God.”
God has often used the imagery of being held by His strong right hand to draw me to Himself and give me His peace.
Like Augustine, I now see how from infancy God was my Keeper. I also was given a mother who “trusted greatly” in God. Unfortunately, I join Augustine in reflecting: “I was thus carried away into vain practices and went far from you, my God.” Later, I too found myself rejoicing in all the “goods” of God rather than in THE GOOD—God. I was also left a desert, uncultivated for God. I see now how God warned me as He did Augustine, and He fashioned sorrow into a lesson for me. Reading his prayer, “Who can untie this most twisted and intricate mass of knots?”, reminded me of a time in adulthood when I uttered almost the exact words in a cry for help.
I was especially moved by Augustine’s words in chapter five, The Inner Conflict, in Book Eight: “The enemy had control of my will, and out of it he fashioned a chain and fettered me with it. For in truth lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity. By such links, joined one to another, as it were—for this reason I have called it a chain—a harsh bondage held me fast.” To me, this is a perfect description of what we now call addiction. I have personally experienced what these words express, and have listened as many others in twelve-step recovery programs spoke these words to me. What he describes here is very relevant to today’s times and struggles and definitely a topic for spiritual direction. I take hope and encouragement in Augustine’s statement: “Our King bound up the strong man,” reassuring me that with God’s help, we may overcome our addictions. Similarly, the Scripture, “Rise, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you,” (Ephesians 5:8) speaks to this image of God breaking strongholds.
In my journey of recovery, I see a lot of parallels to Augustine in adulthood. His words, “You (God) stood me face to face with myself,” describe what God did (and continues to do) for me through the twelve steps. In recovery, I experienced what Augustine describes as, “More beautiful than all those things I desired to know is the modest mind that admits its own limitations.” I was also drawn to humility as a virtue. I join Augustine in praying, “You (God) worked within me. Little by little I was drawing closer to you.” Spiritual growth includes increasing knowledge of self and of God.
God also brought Holy Scriptures into my life along with men and women who were living out a strong Christian faith. In time, I came to believe as Augustine did that “anything lacking the name of Jesus cannot wholly capture me.”
These chapters also contain information about his mother, Monica, that touched my heart. I was drawn to her as a woman of great faith and prayer. I was deeply impacted by Bishop Ambrose’s response to her as she fought for her son— “Let him be, only pray. As you live it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish.” As a mother, I too have shed many tears for my children, and felt God’s assurance that His hand was upon them.
As I finished these chapters and reflected on God’s hand in my own life, I was particularly drawn to these words of Augustine: “For I knew what a thing of evil I was, but I did not know the good I would be after but a little while.” I marvel at how God has fashioned me ever since I “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I see how my great suffering has turned to even greater joy. In God’s hands, sorrow can be a healing salve. I feel that this knowing can be a great encouragement to those seeking spiritual direction.
As Augustine prayed, I desire that “a complete will to remain still and see that you (God) are the Lord” arise and be made firm in me. I long to hear God’s words: “Run forward! I will bear you up, and I will bring you to the end, and there also will I bear you up.” This is hope. I ask for the grace to believe this and to share it with those I companion on their spiritual journey. God longs to make saints out of us all!
I’ve spent the last two months immersed in a major life change—a move. My husband and I have moved to Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. I’ll share more about this later. As I finish unpacking the last box, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote almost exactly two years ago. In it I reflect on another major move—our return to the States after living almost ten years out of the country. For this month, I want to revisit that piece—for y’all and for myself.
TO BEGIN AGAIN…
“ALL LIFE IS IN THE HANDS OF GOD.” — The Rule of Benedict1
“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. Our time abroad had been an all-out, all-in, out-of-the-box experience that lasted almost ten years. Returning is called reverse culture shock and that it was.
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.
2. 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).
3. 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 myself3—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 bicultural 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
1 THE RULE OF BENEDICT: A Spirituality for the 21st century by Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
I’m not sure when this phrase came into my life. Did someone say this to me, “You’re doing it wrong.”? Or, did I just assimilate it through experience? As I am allowing my word or theme for 2021—listen deeply—to live in me, I sense God’s desire to go deeper with me in healing those old wounds that hinder me from receiving this gift of deep listening. God seems to be bringing to the surface themes in my life that have existed for a very long time. Themes that have hindered me from intimacy with God and others. I can see now that if we come to sense and know God through our heart, then if our heart is wounded, we are hindered from knowing God and others to the fullest. Heart wounds and trauma from the past cause the demons of fear and anger to cling to us in the present. Their critical voices come to live with us.
Growing up I don’t ever remember my father saying, “You’re doing it wrong, Cherry.” To the contrary, I feel that I was overly favored by my father, which has caused a different set of problems within myself and my relationships with my siblings. Nevertheless, I left home with the belief that there was a right and a wrong way of doing things. I dearly wanted to do it the right way. I felt love from my father when I performed well. Conversely, if I went against his views, I felt his displeasure and subsequent coldness and dismissiveness. So, I was highly motivated to gain his approval.
Unfortunately, these themes of striving to do it right and gaining the approval of another accompanied me into adulthood. I thrived on excelling in whatever I did, craving recognition and approval. Things went along this way for about the first decade of adulthood. I married and easily conceived, and received the precious gift of two healthy children who looked good and performed well. Sadly, my husband and I pursued cultivating our careers but not our marriage. I was far too focused on myself and my success to care for and love my husband well. At 35, he asked for a divorce. Quiet during our ten-year marriage, he then began to voice all his unhappiness and criticism of me. Coming from a place of deep hurt within him, his angry, harsh words shocked and stung me. I heard, “You’re doing it wrong, Cherry.” All my fears and insecurities came rushing out. I immediately scurried to “do it right.” To make up for what I had done. Unfortunately, my husband was not open to my offer to change. For him, it was too little too late, so we did divorce. Out of that deep pain and by God’s abundant mercy and grace, a new phase opened up for me. A surrender on my part that resulted in a spiritual awakening if you will. It felt like a fresh start, a new beginning, for which I’m very grateful, but I see how the lie, “You’re doing it wrong, Cherry,” came with me into this new life.
I love the phrases: God is not finished yet and It’s not the end of the story. God often reminds me of these truths as He gifts me with the grace of patience and hope. God is able to open our eyes to the light that drives out the darkness within us. The words of a recovery friend frequently come to mind: “Figure it out is NOT one of the 12 steps!” I would so love a nice neat list of steps to follow that results in a healed heart and deep intimacy with God and others. I hope that God is pleased with this heart’s desire of mine, but I believe His plan is different. I don’t need to figure it out because God already has. God offers to take upon himself the care of our affairs. God is giving me the gift of time and drawing me to stay awhile in each moment, each event, each thought, and each conversation. There is power in silence, in prayer, and in waiting. The soul comes to rest in God as God works in the soul and heals the heart. I can trust this, trust God, and ask for His help when I falter and doubt. I can simply BE right where I am today and who I am today praying to trust in God’s goodness and wisdom.
Amidst all the voices that speak to me daily, including that critical voice that says “You’re doing it wrong,” I am beginning to hear a higher voice above all the others. A voice that calls me to come (empty and trusting), to rest in God’s loving embrace, and to receive. Gradually, anger and fear no longer cling to me. I can go forward on the journey to my best self, clinging to my God who walks with me, and who never fails me. From this place of God’s fullness, His love and beauty ooze out of me onto others. This is the work of a lifetime. But God has given me a lifetime.
“What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love…” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
P.S. While reflecting and writing this blogpost, a long-time favorite read of mine keeps coming to mind. Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard is a tenderly-written allegory of a young woman called Much Afraid and her journey with the Good Shepherd to the High Places. In the end, her pain and suffering are transformed into grace and glory. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
At the beginning of each new year, I pray for God to give me a word—a theme or focus for the upcoming year. This year I felt drawn to the word savor and particularly to its meaning: to take delight in. I began my year paying attention to all that I could delight in and then savoring each thing. However, of late I’ve realized that I have not been thinking of this word very often. So, I asked myself and God, “Can I still savor during this time of pandemic with all its pain, suffering, anguish, and uncertainty due to illness, death, unemployment, and isolation?” “Can I experience Easter joy this year?” I felt the answer within me, “Yes, you can.” The scripture verse that came to mind was:
“Be still! And know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:11)
God is giving me a time with very few distractions and only a small amount of decisions to make. I have a slow, simple routine. I am in my home every day. I start each day with a leisurely prayer time and a good cup of coffee. I ask God to show me who He would have me reach out to that day. My husband and I attend daily mass online. My main outdoor activities are morning walks in my neighborhood and afternoon drives with my husband in our Mini-Cooper convertible. As the weather warms, I am able to savor times on my front porch and back deck drinking in the wonders of Springtime in Illinois. I serve as a mentor and spiritual companion to some precious women here and in the Dominican Republic. I continue to do that online. I also attend recovery meetings via Zoom. I write. I enjoy Face Time conversations with my four children and my large, extended family. The sameness and simplicity of my routine give me much calm and very little stress. Since I can’t do much planning for the future, I find it easier to live one day at a time and to carpe diem (seize the day). I know from experience that both of these practices result in a very full and rich life. Much to savor.
As this year unfolds, I have reflected on what it means to receive as that relates to savoring. God has always gifted me with a lot of energy and an optimistic spirit. So, I naturally lean towards being proactive and taking the initiative. There are times in life when this is appropriate and helpful. However, in spiritual and emotional matters, it is not beneficial. When I take the initiative or try to control, I don’t allow God or others to give to me. I miss out on the gift.
The eleventh step of the twelve-step recovery program states: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” In short: sit still, quietly alone. We have the opportunity to make this a part of our new daily routine.
Some are referring to this time of staying at home as imposed monasticism. Over the years, I have spent time with Catholic nuns in monasteries. I cherish those times filled with stillness and peace—God’s presence so real to me. During this current season, I notice the parallels with a monastic way of life. I sense God drawing me to take delight in His presence in all of His creation—His people and nature. To allow God to gift me in many ways and to receive the gift of His love from Himself and from others. I have the time to treasure and ponder many things. To go slower and deeper with life’s bigger questions. To explore myself and my world. And in this way, I am able to savor.
“As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Two years ago, I started meeting with a Franciscan sister in her home, a stately monastery in all its splendor. As we talked, I sensed how fully present she was to me and to God. I could tell how much she enjoyed –took delight in—getting to know me. It felt like she was thrilled at the fact that God had brought a new person into her life. Her attitude of gratitude and trusting surrender to God’s plan was apparent and attractive. That memory has stayed with me. I left with a strong desire to live like that, and to relate that way with the people that God puts in my life—to savor them, to take delight in them. As well as to be open to God putting people in my life who will savor and delight in me. I find that to live this way well requires a slower, unhurried pace. I need time to pay attention—to God, to my interior life, and to others. So, this imposed monasticism offers me this time. I pray that I will give and receive love better as a result of sitting still and listening more.
These days of pandemic have much to teach us. We have seen people at their best and at their worst. I remind myself that we have never been this way before. Therefore, I think it wise to be very gentle with ourselves and with others. Planet earth is hurting and we have an opportunity to look after one another as best as we can. Let God bring to mind those that need a loving touch. Receive the loving touches given to you as a gift from God.
When I spend time alone with God, I sense His immense compassion. I see how Jesus was never surprised by human weakness. Yet I am so often surprised by human weakness—in myself and in another. Jesus’ response to weakness was mercy and love. I, on the other hand, can be quick to judge, be critical, and feel superior. When I sit quietly, God gently shows these things to me along with His mercy and forgiveness towards me. I see how He is guiding me and transforming me little by little, reminding me that I am still in the making. This gift of time is changing me. I want to be quick to give and receive forgiveness.
“If at times we can just be, just quietly sit in the sun of God’s love for us, if we can believe that the One who formed us in the first place is waiting to transform us in the embrace of love, then in what we are doing with our lives, God will increase and we will decrease in the best sense of the word.” Elizabeth Meluch, OCD
We just celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday in the Catholic tradition. This year as I pondered Christ’s wounds on His hands, feet, and side, I was also struck by His wounded heart. His friends wounded Him in their human weakness. We do indeed have a God who understands our woundedness and helps us walk alongside others in their woundedness. God has insight into people’s hearts and people’s hurts. Jesus always meets people where they are and how they are. I have often underestimated the power of simply being in God’s presence. Who we spend time with changes us, so this matters. I believe spending time with God in prayer and reflection will make me more like Him. His presence and love expressed in and through my life have the power to change lives around me.
As this season of pandemic continues, let’s remember that the life of a disciple has a very long apprenticeship but can yield a beautiful bounty—the mind and heart of Christ. I believe this all begins when we learn to sit still, quietly alone. And from that place, go out into the world with Christ’s peace, love, compassion, and forgiveness. That is a great gift to the world.
“The role of committed Christians is always to grow richer themselves so that they can richly give to others.” The Rule of Benedict
Today is Day 12 of our Self-Quarantine— Saturday, March 21 my husband and I found ourselves donning protective face masks and plastic gloves, and boarding an international flight in the Dominican Republic to return to our home in the States. The DR had closed its borders as a safety measure against our current pandemic. We were fortunate to be among the first wave of visitors returning to their homelands, cutting short our winter stay on the island.
Our home state, Illinois, was one of the first states to require that their residents stay at home for the common good. Even though our two-week self- quarantine is coming to an end, we will still be staying at home. Many of us are learning to Be Home.
I am very fortunate to have many faith-filled friends and family in my life who are looking beyond the horror of this pandemic in search of the gifts it holds for each of us. I am grateful to be home with a husband who is like-minded in his spiritual beliefs, and who joins me in digging deep into our faith—in leaning into the One who is strong and wise. Lent has certainly taken on a deeper meaning this year. We are also having many virtual conversations with dear friends and family encouraging one another to look for the gifts, to recognize and honestly acknowledge our fears, our losses, and our sadness, and to pray for one another and the world.
As I wrestle with wanting to do more, I am filled with awe and gratitude toward all those who are sacrificing so much for their fellow citizens. All those on the frontline like the medical community and the dear souls who are coming forward to help. Those braving going out to work every day. Those who are sick. Those who are dying. The sacrifices that so many are making for the good of others. I am reminded that my small sacrifice can simply be doing as I’m told—staying home—making the most of that time, and loving well whomever God places in my path or on my heart each day. Not being able to visit my 98-year-old mother in Florida, or spend the Easter holidays with family, while very sad, is a small sacrifice compared to the sacrifices so many are making each day to keep me safe.
There are many powerful words that have been written these last few weeks. Rather than add more words, I’m going to share with you some of the words that have been most meaningful to me.
A ministry in my own community shared this blog post on how we can redeem this time:
Her blog entry ends with the wise and timely poem written by Kitty Omeara :
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
I pray this will be so.
So, if you are on the front lines of this battle with The Beast (as many are calling Covid-19), I salute you, I thank you, and I pray for you. If you are called, as I am, to be home, I encourage you to not waste this time. We may never pass this way again. Take this rest as a gift and allow God to transform you so you can help transform our world, little by little.
For out of this personal rest comes an explosion of goodness, first in ourselves and our lives, and then we can take that out into the world. (Matthew Kelly-Best Lent Ever—February 26)
Let’s hold on to the hope that spring always brings us: in today’s ever-changing world, Nature’s rhythms remain the same.
Last month I wrote about my desire to exchange contempt for compassion. I am so grateful to God for gifting me with that awareness. He is giving me the time and space here in the Dominican Republic to allow Him to do what He still does—teach, heal, and perform miracles. God cultivates me in the stillness, but also in the messiness, and in the darkness. God has chosen a stunningly gorgeous location to show me some messy and dark places in my life. Yet He is doing so in such a slow and gentle way. When I feel gratitude and genuine sorrow rather than shame, I can be pretty confident that it’s God’s voice that I am hearing.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Psalm 133:1
A topic that we are discussing in my Spiritual Direction course is Interior Freedom. This is the type of freedom that allows one to truly love God’s way—with pure motives. I know that I will never have completely pure motives, but I believe God wants to continue to heal me and grow me along these lines. I know that when I’m afraid, feeling guilty or obligated, or seeking another’s approval, I do not stay true to myself. I am not genuine in my love. I am not experiencing interior freedom.
During the season of Lent, we hear that God wants us to render our hearts to Him. God wants to free us—to take our hearts of stone and give us new hearts, hearts of flesh. This freedom allows us to be driven by our strengths and not by our weaknesses. Years ago, in the twelve-step recovery program, I heard God’s transformation process explained as God taking a scouring pad to my insides and gently yet persistently scrubbing away anything that gets in the way of God’s image shining forth. My spiritual director recently asked me to visualize what that looks like for me now. What comes to my imagination are the big aluminum pots that I have seen many Dominican women use to cook. I’ve always been drawn to how thoroughly they clean these pots after a meal. They tirelessly scour them with a brillo pad until they truly shine. They leave them light, bright, and clear. Through the transformation process, God wants to give us lightness, brightness, and clarity. God wants us to shine. And He wants us to see everything and everyone in our lives with clarity.
“We encounter Christ in our relationships with others.” The Ignatian Adventure.
God has been lovingly showing me how I respond to people who are different from me—who hold different views, opinions, or see a situation differently than I do. With a strong personality, I find that I do not stay true to myself. When I am living in fear, I’m not being my genuine self at that moment. After a period of time of not honoring myself in interactions with another, I become upset, unsettled, and I simply don’t want to be around that person. I believe this speaks to interior freedom—or lack of it. I recently read that we lack interior freedom because we have excessive attachments. Taking that to prayer, I became aware of how I can be excessively attached to my idea of what something should look like or how someone should be. Interior freedom means letting go of my idea and accepting God’s lead.
My daughters Rachael and Beka recently illustrated for me a powerful example of interior freedom. They were able to share their genuine selves honestly with each other as they walked through their differences regarding a topic that mattered greatly to each of them. They lovingly allowed the other to share from the heart without judgement and to just be together in that process. They were even able to recognize and comfort each other in their distinct struggles with the situation. They trusted God that if they each stayed true to themselves, God would sort it out. I looked on in awe, grateful to be a witness to such Holy Ground. So of God—Good, True, and Beautiful.
I also experienced some sadness reflecting on how my relationships with family and close friends have not always gone like that. I long for relationships where we each can be honest with the other about how we are thinking and feeling at the time, with no pressure to be different or to change. I sense that the ability to do this is tied to humility —to walking this earth the way Jesus did. Jesus was humble and kind, slow and gentle. He had a listening heart. I want this. In reflecting on the Gospels, I see how so often we as people can get it wrong, but Jesus always has a better way, a new idea.
I want to go to Jesus each morning to seek His counsel—open to His divine wisdom. Not pushing my way on anyone. Praying for poverty of spirit. Receptive to being shown where I need healing and change. Journeying towards interior freedom. The tenth step of the twelve-step recovery program suggests: Continue to take personal inventory, and, when I am wrong, to promptly admit it. Was I resentful, selfish, dishonest, or afraid? Show me the harm that I may be doing to others—my blind spots.
This past month the reflections in The Rule of Benedict* have dealt with humility—how appropriate!! Here are two quotations that always move me deeply:
“Aware of our own meager virtues, conscious of our own massive failures despite all our great efforts, all our fine desires, we have in this degree of humility, this acceptance of ourselves, the chance to understand the failures of others. We have here the opportunity to become kind.” *
“The humble person handles the presence of the other with soft hands, a velvet heart, and an unveiled mind.” *
If both parties in a relationship are willing to do this kind of deep interior work, great strides can be made towards loving well. Loving as Christ loves. We all can rest in God’s caring hands as we make this journey. We can simply unfold ourselves and become—like flowers blooming. We become matured, ripened, and whole.
Our time here in the Dominican Republic always nourishes us and everything that is important to us. God seems to be saying to me of late, “Stay little today, Cherry.” To live with less of me and more of God. To allow God to reorient my life so that I live moment by moment trusting in God’s goodness and greatness to lovingly care for my smallness and frailties. This is living with interior freedom.
“To remain little means to recognize one’s nothingness, to expect everything from God, and not to worry too much about one’s faults.” St Therese of Lisieux
All said and done, at the end of the day, can I answer “Yes” to the question, “Did I love well all those God brought my way today?” I hope to pray as Pope John XXIII used to pray—”I’m going to bed now, Lord. It’s all in your hands.”
I leave you with this passage which always brings me peace and gives me hope for myself and for those I love:
“I am quite confident that the One who began a good work in you will go on completing it until the Day of Jesus Christ comes.” Philippians 1:6
*The Rule of Benedict, A Spirituality for the 21st Century, Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
My spiritual director recently asked me, “What is God’s essence to you?” I was taken aback by the question, but also intrigued. So I went to prayer, asking God to reveal the answer. We have been in the Dominican Republic for over three weeks now. When we arrived, January weather was upon us—lots of rain and high winds. The palm trees were waving to me, dancing with abandon. This seems to have passed, and I am now sensing a stillness in the air. Each morning as I come out to my balcony and greet the day, I notice how still the palm trees are. As I sink into the rhythm here, I also sense a stillness come upon me. I definitely feel that I encounter God in the silence and stillness. A new thought has been coming to me. Perhaps God’s essence is stillness?
In silence and stillness, my heart waits for you. (Psalm 62)
It seems that God not only reveals Himself to me in the stillness, but He uses stillness to reveal myself to me. To show me my essence and the condition of my heart. These winter stays in the Dominican Republic the past four years have been so healing for me. While I didn’t come with any expectations this year, I sense a greater openness to surrender to God, His ways, and His plan for me. I feel He has given me the desire, or the grace, to long to go deeper with Him, to allow Him to transform me more into the image of His son, Jesus.
In one of the Spiritual Direction classes that I am currently taking, we are following the life of Jesus from his birth to his death as told in the Gospels. Recently we have been looking at the concept Poverty of Spirit. This seems to me like an old term—one that I am drawn to understand more fully, or should I say, experience more fully. I recently read in the Rule of Benedict, “…in the dark days of the spiritual life, when we have failed ourselves miserably, we must remember the God who walks with us on the journey to our best selves and cling without end to the God who fails us never.” I believe this speaks to Poverty of Spirit —a deep knowing of my fragile human state, and God’s desire that I come to Him in that Poverty, and completely depend on Him to show me the way. Simply put, I constantly ask Him, “God, what would you have me do or be in this situation, and would you give me the grace to act or be as you desire?”
So, all this is a backdrop to the title of this blog. As I’ve been enjoying the stillness of this place and the stillness within me, God is revealing more truth to me about myself. Things that get in the way of me loving God and others well. Things that keep me bound in fear rather than free in God’s grace. Often, God uses relationships to teach me these truths about Him and about me. I have found that when I feel either hurt, misunderstood, or not held in high esteem, this can easily turn into contempt for another or self-contempt. Contempt— I don’t really like that word. When I first encountered it, I wasn’t sure of its meaning, but I am learning.
Contempt is a pattern of attitudes and behavior, often toward an individual or group, but sometimes towards an ideology, which has the characteristics of disgust and anger.
Treat-with-contempt is to consider someone or something or myself to be unworthy of respect or attention.
Treating others with disrespect, disdain, mockery, name-calling, aggressive humor, and sarcasm are examples of contemptuous behavior.
Years ago, I was in a ministry situation where I was upset with the leader of the organization and how I perceived that he treated others. I realize now that my anger had turned into contempt towards him. It filled my heart and showed itself in ways that I was unaware of. At the time, God had given me a dear, wise, older woman who took the time to listen to my heart in the matter. After hearing my narrative of the situation, she replied that I needed to get that “venom” out of my system. Venom was an accurate description of what filled my spirit at the time. My heart was very dark. She then asked me a simple question, “Cherry, do you have any compassion for this man?” That stopped me cold. I knew that I did not. I hadn’t even considered, up until that point, that I should have compassion for him. Her insight began a long healing process in me.
Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” To show kindness, caring, and a willingness to help the other.
This past year, I seem to have revisited the ugly emotion of contempt toward another. Feeling hurt, misunderstood, and not held in high esteem, contempt slithered its way into my spirit. It subtly showed itself in sarcasm, disrespect, unkind humor, or a dismissive attitude. While these revelations are painful, I am grateful to God’s gracious Spirit for pricking my own spirit and revealing more of myself to me. I have prayed that God show me my blind spots, and God always answers that prayer. God opens my eyes and I can see. As we are studying Poverty of Spirit, God has gently shown me my heart, and invited me to allow Him to exchange my contempt for His compassion—for all involved in the situation. A friend describes God’s interior work saying, “God is melting me.” It has felt like God “melts” my contempt and brings forth His compassion in me—through a day by day process.
Poverty of Spirit means letting go of my feelings and depending on God’s wisdom. My spiritual director suggested I spend time BEING with God, watching the ocean waves come in and out. I can talk to God about my contempt or any other negative or troubling feelings, and allow Him to take them. Let those negative feelings roll out with the waves. As a new wave comes in, I can view it as God giving me His grace, His compassion, allowing me to see myself and the other more clearly. And to see how God is working in all this for the good of us all. God offers me freedom from the things that bind me—freedom to genuinely love God and others. I was reminded of John 8:31-32—
“To the Jews who believed in him Jesus said: If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples; you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
When I’m living free in God’s kingdom, I can truly live. When our oldest son started his freshman year in college, I remember him sharing with me, “Mom, I love life. I want to take a great big bite out of it.” His words describe the essence of my word for this year—savor. I, too, want to take a great big bite out of life, to savor it.
Over the years, I am coming to deeply believe that I must depend on God for all the things that really matter in life. Those are usually things of the heart— relationships. At my age, I have come to know through experience God’s transforming power in my life and in the lives of others. I want to continue to be open to that power all the rest of my days. I believe that God wants to bring out the best in me and in all my relationships. This belief gives me hope and is something for which I’m willing to fight. I am open to do the hard work of cooperating with God in this transformation. This usually means doing things that make me uncomfortable or may cause me fear and anxiety. Time and time again, I find that freedom awaits me on the other side. Poverty of Spirit, a complete dependence on God, can indeed melt contempt and bring forth compassion.
I recently read Psalm 92 and wrote in my journal: “I want to flourish like the palm trees. To flourish in your courts, O God. To still bring forth fruit in my old age, and be ever full of sap and green.”
I’ll end will a simple prayer that always moves me deeply.
Last month, our youngest daughter, Beka, let me borrow a 30-day devotional I had given her for her 22nd birthday. It’s a small book of writings and prayers by St Teresa of Avila, with a bold, challenging title: Let Nothing Disturb You. I am touched that my daughter takes her faith seriously and loves to share with me the wisdom she has gleaned. I am also drawn to the book’s title as I long to live a trusting, peaceful life—to be undisturbed and unafraid. Perhaps Sacred Scripture is filled with encouragements to “Be not afraid” because God knows we are at our best and most able to love and serve when we are unafraid.
I grew up in a serene farm setting in Central Illinois, but as my father’s alcoholism progressed, our home turned into a volatile and sometimes violent space. It was not peaceful. Fear was a very real and dominant force in my life throughout my childhood. At college, lying in bed in my dorm room my first night away from home, I realized that it was the first time I had felt unafraid in a very long time!
That being said, fear runs deep in me, and even though now I feel safe, saved, redeemed, and in the process of transformation, at times this 65-year-old woman can still feel like a scaredy-cat. It is my most vulnerable weakness and can keep me from experiencing and giving real agape love. A favorite read of mine is Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. It is an allegorical novel about a young girl named Much-Afraid who allows God’s love to transform her into a brave, radiant young woman. She allows the Chief Shepherd to take her to the heights of love, joy, and victory. Her journey involves facing and standing up to her relatives Dismal Forebodings, Gloomy, and Spiteful. I have read this little gem countless times, both in English and in Spanish. My two youngest daughters grew up on the children’s version. Our daughter, Rachael, used it for a book study in Spanish while we were living in the D.R. Wanting to be free of fear has been a deep desire of mine and a motivation to draw near to God’s safety and power. I want to be brave and I want my three daughters to be brave women.
Recently, I did a spiritual exercise where I was asked to choose twelve life events which have shaped me. Twelve is a significant number in spiritual terms—the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples, and the twelve steps of recovery programs. I started the exercise by reading Psalm 139: 1-18 and then listing my twelve events. I clearly saw God’s sustaining presence and persistent, loving care for me, especially in my most fear-filled experiences. So often I am afraid because I feel I will lose something I have or not get something I think I want. The more I meditate on God’s sustaining love and care for me, the more I can trust God with my future. That is the priceless gift of freedom God offers to each of us.
Isaiah 43:1-3 describes it well: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
The truth of my life is that I have not been overwhelmed nor consumed. My God has been with me. I need not fear.
So back to Teresa and the little devotional I have enjoyed spending my mornings with the past thirty days. Each day’s reading contains a thought to begin and another to end your day and one to ponder all through the day. Here are a few of my favorites…
“Patience gains all things.” I can be patient when I am unafraid and trusting God’s plan for me and for others. My middle daughter, Rachael, reminded me recently that we do not know what obedience to God looks like in another. I want to honor others as they walk out their journey as I honor my own uniqueness in walking out mine. When I let God be the judge of others, I can remain undisturbed.
“It’s alright to feel helpless.” It is good for me to know how much I need God, how dependent I really am on Him for everything. I can trust Him to care for me in big and little ways.
“God is willing to wait for me many a day, even many a year.” I take much comfort in knowing that the spiritual journey is for a lifetime. No need to hurry. When my heart is not troubled, I can hear God more clearly and see the world and others through His compassionate and merciful eyes.
“Let me not try to fly before God has given me wings.” Recovery programs talk about staying “right sized.” Being at peace with who you are in the moment and staying true to that “You.” Staying in the moment—today’s 24 hours—is a key to living without fear. Trusting that God knows best for you and not comparing yourself with another or wanting another’s gift.
These are just a few of the nuggets of truth that I have gathered this past month as I spend time with God. I know that ultimately, only God can take away my fear and make me brave. I have heard it said that sooner or later we all rise or fall to the level of our friendships. I want to tend well my friendship with my Creator. That friendship will dictate the quality of my life and my level of trust and peace.
Last weekend we celebrated the graduations of two of our three daughters. Our youngest, Beka, received a B.S. in Exercise Science and our oldest, Blythe, received a PhD in Neuroscience. They passed through much fire and water (as Isaiah describes) to garner these degrees. As our family celebrated, I looked at all four of our children with deep awe and gratitude. They are all brave. And I heard God whisper to me, “Fear not, Cherry”. Once again, I sensed His sustaining presence and persistent loving care.
Good reads this past month—
Let Nothing Disturb You by Teresa of Avila
Love A Guide for Prayer by Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Sister Marie Schwan