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Labor Day Reflections: Work and Christian Spirituality

  
  
  

There is a beautiful golf club down the hill from us. Because so many of its members live in houses on its perimeter, it’s not unusual to see people riding to and fro in their golf carts. For many, this is a classic image of retirement.

I can’t say it attracts me all that much. I have nothing against golf. I took a class in college and loved the sensation of driving a ball up and across an expanse of emerald-green lawn. The hushed tones that accompany the tournaments my husband watches are a nice counterpoint to the loud and obnoxious noise of football games and hockey matches. It’s not the game of golf; it’s the idea of not working that lacks appeal to me.

Let me explain my thoughts. We have such an ambivalent relationship with work in modern day life. While often deriving our identity from “what we do”, we also make retirement – the cessation of such work – a lifetime goal. I don’t begrudge anyone the space and relaxation that retirement affords. The opportunity to spend more time doing things one loves, as well as being with family and friends, is good for the heart and soul. Nevertheless, there is an intrinsic value to work, whether one is drawing a paycheck or not. Thus, the reason behind the emphasis on the “rights and dignity of the worker” that is one of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching.

As we move into the Labor Day weekend, it is helpful to consider the important place that work has in Christian spirituality, as well as the value of striking a balance between work and rest. In her primer on the Benedictine Rule, author Jane Tomaine describes how it calls for “…a balance between physical activity and rest, work, and prayer, time alone and time together, work with the mind and work with the body” (St. Benedict’s Toolbox). This understanding makes retirement less a goal and more of a movement towards other kinds of work. All of it, in the end, works together for the greater glory of God and the service of our fellow human beings.

Prayer-for-Workers

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Catholic-Prayer

 

Catholic Virtues Series: The Contagion of Joy

  
  
  

I love how Pope Francis has resurrected the concept of joy. In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he emphasizes the importance of gladness as part of spreading the message of Christ. …[Christians} should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (EG 15) He embodies this message through the way he speaks and interacts with people around him. Photos show him smiling and laughing as he reaches out to bless a baby or receive the hug of an enthusiastic pilgrim. It’s a welcome sight amidst the cynicism and pessimism that seems to have overrun our culture.

A synonym for joy is gladness. This word appears several times in the Bible to describe the joyous disposition of those dedicated to God’s work and service, as well as in response to God’s blessings bestowed upon us. “Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing,” the psalmist proclaims. During my travels across the country, I have crossed paths with numerous people who show me what it means to bring joy into the most menial tasks. One was the driver who shuttled me to a rental car lot. Along the way he told backstories about a town I would otherwise have considered just another spot on the map. Another was a clerk who lit up the dingy environment in a convenience store with her attentive service to each customer. I seem to run across such people when my patience has been sorely tried by the rigors of the road. So often these encounters end with a simple benediction. “God bless you,” they will say as I am exiting the shuttle or collecting my change. Inevitably I feel lightened by their friendliness and good humor. Joy then becomes contagious, something I am grateful to not only receive but also pass along to others.

 Catholic-prayer-joy

Bright Ideas

  • Saint John Bosco is a wonderful example of a joyful saint. Share his story with your family or class and talk about ways you can spread the Gospel message with joy and gladness. 

  • Download my Prayer for a Joyful Heart and share it in your home or parish.

 

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Catholic Virtues Series: Caring for God’s Creation

  
  
  

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I heard a news account the other day that broke my heart. It was about poachers cutting huge hunks out of the giant redwoods in order to make furniture and souvenirs. This activity is threatening the lives of these rare and majestic trees. It makes the care of creation all the more pressing.

Gods-Creation

Muir Woods, one of the most easily accessed redwood forests in northern California, has a section called Cathedral Grove. Visitors are encouraged to walk through it in hushed fashion so as to take in the beauty and grandeur of the trees towering overhead. In such a state of reverence it’s hard to imagine anyone hacking away parts of God’s creation in order to make a few bucks.

As one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching, care of creation entails a deep respect for the natural world and a commitment to safeguarding the environment. It also calls upon us to ensure that all people share in the earth’s resources in just and equitable fashion. The world is not only God’s gift to us here and now, but also a gift to the succeeding generations. In this way, our grandchildren and their children will be able to take delight in places like Cathedral Grove and know what it means to perceive the divine mystery in the goodness and beauty of creation.  

 Psalm-Reflection

 

Bright Ideas

 

 Reflection on Psalm 148

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

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 

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  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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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