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Catholic Virtues Series: The Legacy of Generosity

  
  
  

When I got the email about Ray’s death, my heart sank. It wasn’t a surprise, as the cancer in his system was depleting his energy and slowly draining the life out of him. Nevertheless, I felt as if a bright light went out of our world with his passing. I was often the recipient of Ray’s warmth and goodness. He greeted each person who entered our parish and made newcomers and old-timers alike feel welcomed and valued. He leaves behind a great legacy, one steeped in both hospitality and generosity.

As a counter to the restricted and self-guarded experience of stinginess, generosity opens the heart and blesses the soul. We not only find joy in giving, but also come to appreciate in fuller measure the abundance of God’s gifts. Like the widow visited by the prophet, Elijah, whose jar of oil and bowl of flour never ran out, we discover the replenishing generosity of God. No wonder so many of the saints were joyous, even in suffering. They uncovered one of Jesus’ most profound teachings: Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:38) Everyday saints like Ray give without even realizing they are doing so. Their kind of generosity – one of genuine caring and interest in others – has a way of generating goodness. After an encounter with them, we want to pass along what we have received. In this way, generosity keeps on giving. So, while we will miss Ray’s jovial greetings on Sundays, his legacy continues through the generosity he inspired in each of us.

 Prayer-Generous-Heart

Bright Ideas

  • Engage your family or class to consider a person of generosity in their lives. How has being a recipient of generosity stimulated a desire to be generous towards others?

  • Download my Prayer for a Generous Heart and use it in your home or parish.

 

Virtues Series: Prayer for a Generous Heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life

  
  
  

There is a nice parallel between the strength and stamina built in the body through physical workouts with that of the soul. I am often asked to speak to groups of catechists, teachers, pastoral leaders, and parents on the theme of spiritual balance. It’s a clear need in a world that seems perpetually off-kilter. When delving into spiritual practices, it’s always helpful to study the work of the “masters” – contemplative women and men who exemplify centeredness. Figures like Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, and Julian of Norwich come to mind. They are a bit like those toys with weighted bottoms that always spring back to an upright position despite the punches thrown at them. What keeps these spiritual role models grounded is the habits they formed through daily regimens and routines. Merton spent ample time working outdoors and finding grace in the ordinary routine of monastic life. Teresa and Julian were both recipients of mystical visions, but found grace in humor and in listening to the needs and concerns of others. Francis devoted his life to the poor, but reveled in the grandeur of nature.

“Practice makes perfect.” It’s not hard to see how true this is for the artist, the musician, and the athlete. How about the spiritual practitioner? What sort of practices might strengthen us and keep us upright, despite the slip-ups that are part of our day-to-day lives? There are the obvious ones – daily prayer and weekly participation in worship - as well as the nourishment that comes with inspirational reading, sharing time with those we love, and giving generously to those in need. No matter what soul-full activities we take on, the important thing is to do them on a regular basis. That way, no matter which direction we fall, we find ourselves with enough flexibility and grace to bounce back into place.


Spiritual-Practices 

Bright Ideas

 

  7 Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

The Grace in Grief

  
  
  

As mid-July approaches I remember my daughter, Jenny, and my father, Albert. The anniversaries of their deaths fall two days apart and wrap me in a paradoxical shroud of both grief and gratitude. Since both of these beloved figures passed out of my life decades ago – first my daughter and then my father – the sharp edges of loss have blunted somewhat. In place of the immediate anguish and the aftermath of extended sadness comes peace and deep thankfulness for the gift of two wonderful people in my life. This is grief for the long haul.

 Grief

We don’t often talk about this kind of grief. Instead we offer extensions of consolation immediately after a death and then sporadically during the months that follow. The peculiarly American uneasiness with death makes the extended reality of bereavement hard for many people, especially those unacquainted with it, to comprehend. Helpful as they are, support groups only go so far in bringing us through the ever-afters of loss. The heart may heal but the scars remain.

What I find each time the July anniversaries roll around, however, is an increasing awareness of the precious nature of life and the importance of loving the people around me here and now. I am also vividly aware of the losses others are grieving. I know how the levels of heartache may ease over time and yet also surface with surprising intensity in unexpected moments. Author Parker Palmer writes about two kinds of heartbreak. One is the heart broken into shards which we aim at others in our desperation and despair. The other is the heart broken open, thus allowing for an enlarged capacity for empathy and an attendance to the suffering of others. This is the grace in grief. We don’t choose it, but trust in its transformative potential. The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye describes it this way: “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things….” As two significant anniversaries approach, I am hopeful that this time around I have grown a little less brittle and little more compassionate. By God’s grace it can be.

Catholic-Prayers 

Bright Ideas

  • Reflect on or talk to someone else about a loss in your life. In what way has grace opened your heart over time? How has your experience of grief given you a way to console someone else?

  • Download my Prayer for Those Who Grieve and use it in your home or parish.

 

 Download Prayer for Those Who Grieve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

Front Porch Moments

  
  
  

One of the best things about summer is my morning time on our front porch. It’s where I head first thing with my journal, a glass of orange juice, and some meditative reading. The sound of birds and insects, along with rustling leaves, is a glorious immersion into the beauty of creation. After completing my journal entry and sitting for a while in silence, I am often reluctant to move off the porch and back into a daily routine.

Catholic-Reflection

This lovely front-porch experience makes a new scientific study on peoples’ ability to let their minds wander all the more startling. It found that most of those studied preferred physical pain to sitting alone with their thoughts. Men find it harder than women to tolerate time without distractions, and both groups showed an alarming resistance to solitude. 

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me since our culture thrives on distractions and being constantly “online.” Perhaps it coincides with the decline in front porches. Even in subdivisions where they still exist, it’s rare to see people on them and following the practice of one elderly sage: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”

I often advise parents and teachers against the overuse of “time-outs”. By making time alone a punishment, we send a message to children that two of our most time-honored spiritual traditions – silence and solitude – are wrong. No wonder the aforementioned study found adults preferring mild electric shocks to time alone with their own thoughts. I can’t help feeling that, if given an opportunity for more front porch moments, our entire culture would reap the benefits for body and soul. Then we might truly understand the words of the ancient psalm as an invitation to something infinitely precious: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

Catholic-Reflection

Bright Ideas

  • Engage your family or group in a conversation about the value of time spent alone and in solitude. What do you find daunting about such time? How might you learn to discover the benefits and beauty of such time?

  • Download my Greening Practices for Summertime Spirituality and use it in your home or parish.

 

Download a Summertime Spirituality reflection for your home or parish!

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

Catholic Virtues Series: The Value of Cooperation

  
  
  

A few weeks ago I mentioned the training my husband, Ron, had been doing for a 50-mile ultra-marathon. The race has been run and Ron finished in good measure, even winning third place in his age group. While only a bystander, I found the experience to be a grand example of cooperation. This awareness began to dawn on me while Ron was in training. While definitely a sole endeavor, the team of people helping, guiding, and supporting him for months was impressive. A chiropractor with a specialization in sports medicine treated a foot injury, and the owner of a store specializing in running gear advised him on foods to eat before and during the race. Family members, friends, neighbors and even casual acquaintances offered words of encouragement.

Catholic-Virtues 

On race day itself, I was impressed with the cooperative efforts of volunteers registering the runners and serving their needs at the various aid stations along the way. It was evident how much work had been done prior to the race to mark the trail and plan for any number of contingencies. At the awards ceremony on the morning after the race, every single runner was called forward and acknowledged for his or her time. A prize was given to the man finishing three seconds before the sixteen-hour cut-off. He was cheered as loudly as the first place, eight-hour finisher.

Maybe I was so taken with all of this because there seems to be so little cooperation these days in other areas of life. The nature of competition in sports and business sets one person against another in a race to be #1. Even worse is vying to be on the right side of the political divide. Such fierce competition means there have to be losers in order to make way for the winners.

Jesus would certainly be an ill fit in such a society. He constantly seemed to cheer for those in last place and had little tolerance for the self-righteous. He called for cooperation with one another and with God’s magnificent Spirit so that all people could take their place with dignity and grace. He knew we wouldn’t all have the role of the runner who is feted at the end of the race, but that the task of service for and with one another mattered just as much. He viewed life, not as a rat race, but one only worth running in concert with each other. With Christ as both goal and inspiration, we find our strength renewed and able to soar with the wings of an eagle, running and not growing weary, walking and not growing faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Cooperation-Prayer

Bright Ideas

  • Engage in a discussion with your family or group about the value of cooperation in your life. How do you find encouragement and support from those around you? How do you offer it to others in a spirit of cooperation?

  • Download my Prayer for a Spirit of Cooperation and use it in your home or parish.

 

Prayer for a Spirit of Cooperation

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

From Holidays to Holy Days

  
  
  

Holidays at our house were occasions of fun and festivity. One of my favorites was the Fourth of July. Eating on the back porch and watching the fireworks set off by a neighboring country club made the evening both casual and exciting. The collection of grandparents, siblings, cousins, in-laws, and family friends made for a noisy and exuberant celebration.

 Independence-Day-Reflection

This was still the case when we celebrated the last Fourth of July with my father. He had grown thin and somewhat frail, but still reveled in what he called “controlled chaos” as he settled in his favorite easy chair and the family gathered. I watched him feed his dinner, piece by piece, to our dog when my mother wasn’t looking. At one point, everyone drifted inside to sit around him. It was a spontaneous action that brought me to tears. I think all of us knew – my father most of all – that it would be his last family gathering. Two days later he suffered a stroke. A few weeks later he died.

Even though the Fourth of July is a secular holiday, it took on a holy aspect that year. As a result, I find myself returning in memory to that evening and giving thanks for such blessed time with my dad. Gathering around him just prior to his passing away was a sacred act, one rooted in the devotion we share as a family. Without any formal summons, we all knew the importance of enfolding him with our love. As a result, I will celebrate the 4th again this year with sweet memories of my loving father and the family he cherished.

 Prayer-for-Freedom

Bright Ideas

  • Initiate a discussion with your class or family about a holiday turned holy day. What deeper elements of God’s love and grace emerged within your celebration of that time?

  • Celebrate Independence Day in your home or parish with A Prayer for Celebrating Freedom.

 

Download A Prayer For Celebrating Freedom

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

Catholic Virtues Series: Levels of Understanding

  
  
  

Of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding seems to be the most multi-leveled. It brings to mind a Russian nesting doll in which each one opens into another and another until we reach the smallest and yet most central place. The outermost shell is wrapped around the level of comprehension – those wonderful ah-ha moments in which the light dawns and the problem at hand suddenly becomes clear. As a teacher, I remember the delight in a student’s face when she finally tackled a mathematical concept or deciphered the words on the page. It was an enlightened moment for me as well.

 Catholic-Virtue-Understanding

At another level is the understanding between one person and another. This is what the late John O’Donohue likened to coming home. “Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person's soul.” By listening below the words spoken aloud and the feelings, needs, and concerns lying beneath them, we reach a level of understanding that brings us heart to heart.

Going even deeper is the understanding of what Thomas Merton called “the true self.” As a spiritual director, I listen to the way in which my directees mine this territory with great care and a lot of inner work. It’s not easy to face painful realities about ourselves. Sometimes we reach an impasse where we can find no explanation for repeated patterns and habitual back-stepping. Paul described this aptly when he wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15) When a break-through is reached, it opens up some of the most precious fruits of the Spirit: gentleness, kindness, and patience.

At the center of understanding is the unfolding relationship with God. It may be something we experience over the long haul or in a burst of glorious insight. The latter was the case with the medieval mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, who wrote, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.” This is a level of understanding nested deep in the heart and accessible by and through the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit.

Virtues-Prayer-Understanding 

Bright Ideas

  • Initiate a discussion with your class or family about importance of understanding. How can you deepen your understanding of each other, of yourselves, and of your relationship with God.

  • Download my Prayer for Understanding and use it in your home or parish.

 

 Download a Prayer for Understanding

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

Pentecost Language, Part 2

  
  
  

Note: In last week’s blog, I wrote about the power of the Holy Spirit to set the disciples afire with words that matter. I continue this week by reflecting on the power to go beyond words as God’s Spirit stirs life and love into our lives.

 Pentecost

And so with the fire of Pentecost comes the wind – a compelling symbol of the Holy Spirit – that sometimes whips around us, but is more often experienced in a whisper, a simple intake of breath. In the Book of Genesis God breathes life into the first humans and the winds move over the waters as part of the beginning of creation. In John’s gospel, Jesus appears to his disciples and breathes peace on them. In this era of too many words holding little or no meaning, perhaps we are meant to speak less and breathe more.

I discovered this in a profound way over thirty-five years ago when Ron and I were living in Sitka, Alaska. Our pastor called one night and told me about a woman in the parish who had suffered a miscarriage. She was Russian and spoke no English. Her husband was frantic with worry. He knew she was adrift in her grief and unable to speak to anyone, even him, about it. Since our daughter, Jenny, had died just a few months earlier, the pastor knew I could empathize with the woman’s pain. Would I come with him to visit her? 

By then I knew that words don’t count for much in the face of grief and loss. Nevertheless I was hesitant because I didn’t speak her language. After a few minutes I was somehow able to convey that my baby, too, had died. I will never forget the look on her face – one of recognition and even of relief. We cried and hugged and communicated in a deep and mysterious way.

This is what the late Henri Nouwen meant when he described true community as a heart-to-heart calling. We will never all speak the same language, read the same books, attend the same church, or hold the same ideas and opinions – and that’s a good thing! What we can do is allow the fire of God ‘s Spirit to rest upon us, drawing out of us the gifts needed to breathe peace into a world desperately in need of Good News. Pentecost-Prayer

Bright Ideas

  • Continue to reflect on the significance of Pentecost and the call to share the Good News with a handout from Sadlier’s Gather in My Name event.

  • Download my Pentecost People prayer and use it in your home or parish.

 

Download your Pentecost People prayer cards!

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

Pentecost Language, Part 1

  
  
  

For sheer drama it’s hard to beat the scene in the Book of Acts. As the disciples gather in a closed room, a roaring wind envelops them. It’s so ferocious that it attracts the attention of pilgrims who are in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the Jewish Feast of Weeks. Tongues of fire descend upon the disciples and come to “rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3). Their fear now gone, they fling open the doors and go out to meet the multitude, speaking in such a way that each person in the disparate crowd hears the message about the powerful deeds of God in their native language. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Despite the awesome images of wind and flame, my favorite part centers on the disciples’ instant multi-lingualism. As a writer and public speaker, I am constantly seeking fresh ways to express myself and therefore covet the ability to converse in different languages. I also have a profound respect for the power of words. Barbara Brown Taylor, a gifted preacher and author, describes language as porous. Each word, she says, contains a history of its own. The trouble is the more access we have to print and electronic words, the emptier our language seems to become. Consider all the tweets and texts, the postings and podcasts bouncing around us each second. It builds a modern day Tower of Babel in which potential misunderstanding ramps up as our speech becomes more frivolous, divisive, or incomprehensible.

Pentecost 

Throwing words around is easy; making them understood is the challenge. We only have to look at family relationships to know how this works. Deborah Tannen is a linguist who writes extensively about interpersonal communication. She distinguishes between the message, what the speaker intends, and the meta-message, what the hearer absorbs. She encapsulates this in the title of her book about mother-daughter communication – You’re Wearing That? To a mother it’s a simple question; to her daughter it’s one more example of critique and disapproval. Language indeed has power.

All of this raises the question of how the disciples conveyed the meta-message in so many different languages. How did the Spirit speak through them, placing on their tongues words that could be not only be heard but also understood, words of power and faith, words that mattered? The answer might lie in the link between the tongues of fire coming to rest over each disciple and those taking hold of their speech. In biblical terms, “speaking in tongues” is equated with prophesying. For some the idea of something so emotive can be discomfiting, perhaps evoking images of soapbox preachers and intolerant proselytizing. Yet can we doubt that such fire is needed in our world? When we hear dreary news about mass shootings and environmental disasters, about political gridlock and religious infighting, about bombs in crowded markets and little girls taken into slavery, don’t we all long for some ecstatic speech, some good news? What’s needed is fresh air – but that’s for next week’s blog.

Pentecost 

Bright Ideas

  • Find reflections and activities for Pentecost and use them to celebrate this sacred feast with your class or family.  

  • Download my Prayer for a Pentecost Tongue, and use it in your parish or home.

 

Prayer for a Pentecost Tongue

 

 

 

 

 

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The Path of Parenthood

  
  
  

My husband, Ron, has been training the past few months to run a 50 mile race. This is not a typo. Fifty - five-oh - miles! In addition, the race will entail a total gain of 13,000 feet in elevation. To boot, there is a waiting list for those trying to enter the race. Ron told me about a bumper sticker he saw not long ago: “So you’re training to run a marathon. How cute.” It speaks to the rising interest in pushing the limits through events like 50-mile runs and sports so extreme that running marathons is considered passé.

It’s impressive, to be sure. However, while I admire the endurance and dedication of these athletes, their efforts pale in comparison to the path of parenthood. I think Ron would agree with me saying the past 35 years of being a parent has entailed some grueling treks as well as some magnificent highs. It’s taken each of us into deep valleys of anxiety and frustration, as well as to peaks of pride, exuberance, and sheer joy.

 Parenthood

With the past and pending celebrations of both Mother’s and Father’s Day, I am aware of how daunting this path is for some people. Single parents who shoulder the financial and emotional concerns of their families on their own. Parents of children with physical or mental disabilities, whose love, devotion, and commitment is nothing short of heroic. Mothers and fathers whose children stray into dangerous territory and who await their return with hope born of desperation. Even those on seemingly happy trails encounter unexpected and unwelcome bumps along the way.

In one of my favorite films, “Parenthood”, the patriarch of the family pours out his anxiety to his oldest son over the gambling debts the younger son has incurred. He tells how he used to liken parenthood to a football game. Once the kids were grown and gone, he could spike the ball and do his touchdown dance. What he comes to realize is there is no end zone, no goalposts, and certainly no victory dance. “It never, ever ends,” he laments.

That may be the same reason the path of parenthood is as rewarding as it is daunting. The motivation to run up a mountain parallels the commitment of parenting for the long haul. You never know what’s around the next bend or what kind of energy you find you are able to muster. You test levels of endurance and push past them. And, most of all, you press on with the kind of hope for your children that Paul wished for the community at Laodicea. “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians: 2-3)

 

Prayer-for-Parents

Bright Ideas

 

 Download a Prayer for Parents

 

 

 

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