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Catholic Virtues Series: Lessons in Patience

  
  
  

I don’t know the reason for it but I recently spent a morning feeling impatient with everyone and everything. The drivers going a few miles below the speed limit. The woman taking way too much time to make her deposit at the bank. A computer that took forever to download a document. It’s not like I had anywhere vital to be. I was simply feeling impatient. 

My work in spiritual direction has taught me to listen to these kinds of emotions rather than pushing them aside. What I discovered was, while I was not exactly dreading a commitment later that day, I really wanted it to be over. In essence, I was anxious to get the present moment out of the way and then found myself bristling with irritation at the one that followed. It led to a chain of exasperation that kept me agitated for the entire morning.

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I recently read an article about a social study on the value of patience. Participants were asked to choose between a small but immediate reward and waiting several weeks for a larger one. Not surprisingly, most of them chose the former. Those who delayed gratification treasured their reward more highly than those who opted for immediate results. This was true even when the rewards turned out to be identical. The study affirmed how the act of waiting reaped other “hidden treasures” – self-control, willpower, anticipation, and gratitude.

There are different ways to wait, of course. My own restless, anxious, frustrated kind only brought about more angst. Type the word “wait” into a biblical web site and over 100 results pop up. Twenty-two of them have to do with “waiting for the Lord.” One of the most striking is Psalm 40:1: I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” The psalmist is describing the kind of waiting that produces the same results affirmed in the social study. Our inner cries are heard, our restlessness quelled, our appreciation of the moment amplified.

It took a while but the lesson I needed to learn about patience eventually registered. I was rewarded with a bit of insight into the cause of my impatience and an openness to waiting upon God’s good timing. Needless to say, the remainder of my day proceeded much more happily.

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Bright Ideas

  • A striking example of patience is Saint Rose Phillipine Duschene who had to wait many years to realize her dream of becoming a missionary in America. Read about her life and use the activities to initiate a discussion about patience in your family or class.

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

 

 

 

 

 photo © iStockphoto

 

On the Road Again

  
  
  

A flight attendant recognized me on a recent trip, noting how I always board the plane with a book in hand. I suppose I stand out because I spend time with a printed text rather than an electronic device. The fact that I have been on a plane an average of twice a week for the past month also indicates my heavy travel schedule these days. It truly qualifies me as a “road warrior.”

In truth, the traveling is more gift than anything. As my brother, Larry, once pointed out, my job is to talk and travel. How cool is that? Over the past six weeks I have journeyed from the prairies of Nebraska to the mountains of Colorado, from one coast to another, from the steamy warmth of New Orleans to the dry air of Palm Springs. Autumn colors have been in abundance as have sights of ocean, mountain, forest and desert. The landscapes of this vast country are truly a wonder to behold.

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My father loved to travel. He considered it the best form of education and was known on occasion to pull us out of school in order to take a trip that fit his schedule. One of our most cherished family memories was a lengthy road trip from Colorado to New York, with stops in Yellowstone and a visit with relatives in St. Louis. In the days before handheld devices, we were entertained by viewing the sights along the way, singing songs (“99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" was a favorite), and reading. Perhaps that’s why I still travel with a book.

My current travels are not for sightseeing, however, but to speak to groups of catechists, teachers, parents, and pastoral ministers. I inevitably leave a place feeling richly blessed by the degree of dedication to ministry I see exemplified in those who are part of each gathering. Instead of picking up souvenirs, I collect stories. They tell about the inspiration as well as the challenge these generous people experience as they pass along the faith in parishes and schools, in homes and in the workplace. They are stories of hope and trust and, most of all, of love. When I feel a bit road-weary, they give me the impetus to pack my bags and set out once again. There is always more to see, more to discover, and more to appreciate with each and every trip.

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Bright Ideas

  • Initiate a family or class discussion about a favorite trip you have taken alone or with others? What wondrous sights and sounds did you experience along the way?.

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

 

 

 

 

 photo © iStockphoto

 

Fleeting Moments

  
  
  

I almost missed it on my drive through the neighborhood. The tiny maple tree is usually dwarfed by its majestic neighbors – tall, stately pines that look down upon it like haughty aunts. On this particular afternoon, it was the little tree’s time to shine. Its leaves, tinted gold and fringed with scarlet, seemed to shiver with the sheer joy of living. Light glowed from it, making all of the surrounding trees appear dowdy by comparison. It caught my eye in the instant I sped past it, and served as a moment to savor for the rest of the day.

Here in Colorado, autumn has caught our attention. From the friendly receptionist in the doctor’s office to the courteous clerk who bags my groceries, everyone seems eager to comment about these gorgeous fall days. Talk of brilliant blue skies, idyllic temperatures, and the autumnal hues that have colored everything from the scrub oak to the pussy willows has overshadowed other, more stunted conversation. Political campaigns pale in comparison to the glories of these dazzling days. Autumn is making us more amenable to one another as well as to our surroundings.

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Our consciousness may be on high alert because of the short-lived nature of the season. Any day now a frost could, if not eliminate the color, at least dull it. Autumn in Colorado is fleeting. Some years, it lasts a day or a week before a snowstorm freezes its progression or a windstorm strips the trees. As a result, we take what comes on a day-to-day basis, grateful for each luminous moment.

On the morning of my encounter with the little tree, I read a poem about trees in autumn. It described how they shed their foliage in an act of surrender that speaks of faith and the audacious hope of a faraway spring. If lifted me out of my daily round of angst over insignificant matters. Maybe the poem also accounted for the attentiveness that accompanied me on my drive out of the neighborhood. Instead of being caught up in a web of thoughts, I was aware and could thus spot a little tree having its moment in the sun. 

The little tree also offered a deeper appreciation for life’s other fleeting experiences and an openness to what each might hold. Even those that last beyond a moment - extending into hours, days, weeks, months, or even years - can, in retrospect, be considered fleeting. I think of the summer I spent on crutches after foot surgery. At the time, my restricted movement and slow healing process seemed interminable. Looking back, I recognize it as a summer of rest and resourcefulness. In the big picture of my life, it is just a blip.

The ancient prophet writes, “Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). I find this heartening. All things pass in time. In the meantime, the best we can do is look around, pay attention, and grab each opportunity to embrace our moment in the sun.

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Bright Ideas

  • Initiate a discussion in your class or family about a fleeting moment for which you are grateful.  

  • Download my Prayer of Attentiveness and share it in your home or parish.

 

 

 

 

 photo © iStockphoto

Franciscan Simplicity

  
  
  

I don’t think I ever met anyone who longed for a more complicated life. Between the continual battle with “stuff” piled up in attics, closets, and basements, and the clutter in our minds and on our calendars, the longing for a simpler life runs deep and wide. No wonder Francis of Assisi remains one of our most popular saints. His bold decision to strip away the extraneous parts of his life resonates among those feeling mired in details, overload, and cultural messages urging us to have and do more. This isn’t to say the life of Saint Francis was a bed of roses. Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, his model of simplicity, one passed along through the practice of Franciscan spirituality, has much to offer our over-saturated society.  

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While not nearly as radical, my husband, Ron, and I did our own purge a few years ago in preparation for a year-long road trip. It took three months to sort through everything we owned and jettison anything we hadn’t looked at, valued, or figured into our future. Over that period we probably got rid of a third of our belongings. We put most of it in storage and then packed our car for the trip. At first it seemed like we were traveling with the bare minimum. After a couple of months, however, I began to wonder why we were carting around so much stuff.  

The Reverend Billy Graham once said he never saw a hearse pulling a U-Haul. What a delightful reminder of the futility of grasping at things. Saints like Francis got a jump on end-of-life simplicity by choosing to travel lightly. This, of course, isn’t just about material things; those are easy enough to relinquish in the end. It’s the emotional burdens – the grudges, resentment, regrets, opinions, and all manner of dissatisfaction which will only weigh us down as we age. Once again Francis serves as both model and guide. His lovely “Hymn to Creation” is an example of taking simple pleasure in the moment and giving praise to God for all that is rather than what was or what ought to be. When caught up in gratitude, all reasons to moan and groan melt away. It’s the grateful person who is often able to understand the true meaning of simplicity. Whether living in a mansion or a monastery, these are the ones who are able to take everything as gift, to embrace the now, and to let nothing but God’s breath carry them forward.    

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The Intricacy of Family

  
  
  

Family: “…an intimate community of persons bound together by bIood, marriage, or adoption for the whole of life.” (A Family Perspective in Church and Society, United States Catholic Conference of Bishops)

I first read this definition of family when the U.S. Bishops’ document was released in 1988. I have referred to it many times since then in talks and articles about the reality of family. I like the broadened understanding of family in the definition because “blood, marriage, and adoption” encompasses all sorts of domestic relationships: married, never-married, widowed, divorced, or separated; parents and non-parents; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended family members; blended families, stepparents and adopted children. It’s a huge mix.

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Perhaps my favorite part of the definition, however, is the “bound together” line. It brings to mind Erma Bombeck’s delightful title of one of her books: Family - The Ties that Bind… and Gag! Bombeck had a tremendous wit and a realistic view of family that was never snarky or mean. It simply acknowledged the messiness of familial ties. We have only to turn to the Bible for affirmation of that fact. Some of the stories in the Old Testament are enough to make even the most dysfunctional among us relook at our own situation with relief.

In the New Testament, we have the Holy Family. While paintings often portray them as placid figures, the brief accounts of their life paints a much different picture. Angels appear unexpectedly, visitors both scruffy and exotic show up unannounced, and the family flees across the border to escape the violent acts of a paranoid king. As a mother, I have long been grateful that they are called the holy family and not the perfect one. This makes them more relatable as role models. Saint Therese of Lisieux describes holiness as … simply doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be.” Mary and Joseph exemplify this by their readiness to take part in a plan that must have perplexed them at times. Luke’s description of Mary “pondering these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) speaks to the unfolding understanding that comes with the parental territory.

I noticed that one of the family saints listed for the upcoming World Meeting of Families is Mary, Undoer of Knots. What a wonderful figure to turn to in prayer when we feel our own family ties entangling us in anxiety, fear, or confusion. It affirms how the only way to stay bound together in love is by opening ourselves to the wondrous workings of God.

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Catholic Virtues Series: Empathy and Comfort

  
  
  

“Twelve Years a Slave” was on television recently and I found it no easier to watch the second time around. The same heartache enveloped me as scenes of brutality, suffering, and massive injustice unfolded in slow but steady fashion throughout the film. This time I was struck most deeply, however, by the plaintive cry of Patsy, the slave lusted after by her master and despised by his wife. Her desperation grows so intense that she begs Solomon, the free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, to take her life. “I ain’t got no comfort,” she cries.

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A few weeks ago I heard a presentation by Jerry Straub, a former Hollywood producer who now devotes his energy and skills to making films about global poverty. It was a sobering look at the millions of people who are without comfort as they scrounge through garbage dumps for scraps of food, seek basic health care, and struggle to survive in rat-infested hovels. After his presentation, I confess to suffering a bit of compassion fatigue. How, I wondered, do we even begin to address the magnitude of the problem? How do we bring comfort to masses of people who lack the most basic necessities for life?

A partial response might lie in the practice of empathy, something Jesus displayed each time he encountered those in pain. When healing people who were ill or infirm, he often reached out to touch the person and thus convey a sense of compassion and warmth. He didn’t shame the woman who others wanted stoned to death for her act of adultery, but instead told her to go and “sin no more” (John 8:11). Surrounded by crowds wanting to be healed in body and spirit, his heart was “moved with pity” because he understood how lost and abandoned they were, “…like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). His capacity to feel for and with others made Jesus a masterful healer

In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul’s analogy of the human body describes empathy in beautiful fashion. When one hurts, all hurt; when one rejoices, we all rejoice. By understanding that we are all in need of both human touch and Divine grace, we bring comfort in one-by-one fashion and thus participate in the healing of our broken and sorrowful world.

 Prayer-for-Empathy

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Bright Ideas
  • Choose a passage from the Gospel in which Jesus heals someone and discuss it with your family or class. How does the way in which Jesus brings comfort to others inspire you to do the same?

  • Download my Prayer for Empathy and share it in your home or parish.

 

 

 

 

 

 photo © iStockphoto

The Gift of Older Sisters

  
  
  

I missed Sisters’ Day (August 3rd). Keeping up with all of the “official” days to celebrate people in our lives seems rather arbitrary. Instead I find myself celebrating my own sisters after a weekend of family parties. My two oldest sisters – Mary Ellen (Mel) and Jo Ann – are a generation apart from me. Both were in high school when I was born. They married when I was so young that I hardly have any memories of them living at home. Nevertheless, I feel a closeness to both of them despite the gap in our ages. I also admire them greatly.

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Mel and Jo Ann had experiences I can hardly comprehend. During World War II, they went to live with my grandparents in St. Louis. This made it easier for my mother and older brother, Ted, to join my father where he was stationed with the Army Air Corps. While they were surrounded by the love and security of extended family, it must have been hard to be separated from my parents at such a young age. The two of them developed a deep bond that has endured for a lifetime. I can’t ever recall hearing them argue or say a mean word about the other. They are best friends as well as sisters.

When it comes time for birthdays, I always have trouble finding cards for them. The stock fare for sisters is that of sharing secrets and giggling under the bedcovers. This isn’t the kind of relationship I share with either of them. To create my own card, I would add a word of thanks for the wonderful role models they have been as wives and mothers. I would compose a verse about the way in which each is aging with grace. And I would ask for God’s blessing on two wonderful women whose love and devotion to one another inspires and touches me deeply. 

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Bright Ideas

  • Do you have siblings for whom you are thankful? If not, name someone else you admire for their love and devotion to others.

  • Download my prayer, A Blessing Prayer for Siblings, and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

 

Catholic Virtues Series: Loyal Loved Ones

  
  
  

“Wherever you go, I will go…” (Ruth 1:16) These words from Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, encapsulate the bond between two women from divergent families and backgrounds. The marriage of Ruth to Naomi’s son first brought them together. When tragedy befell both women they found strength in each other’s love and friendship. Perhaps the fact that they both understood the particular grief of being widowed solidified the relationship. Whatever the reason, Ruth remained steadfast in her commitment to her mother-in-law despite Naomi’s entreaties for her to return home to the security of her own people. Naomi, in turn, helped Ruth find a husband and begin a new life and family. Together the women weathered storms of grief, poverty, and desperation, and reached the happiest of endings. It is a profound story of friendship, dedication, and, most of all, loyalty.

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All relationships depend upon loyalty for success. Fidelity in marriage. Trustworthiness in friendship. Reliability among coworkers. As a part of our faith, we believe in God’s unwavering love and commitment to the covenant, I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God (Exodus 6:7). The last words in the Gospel of Matthew promise loyalty from Jesus to his disciples and, by extension, to each of us: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How, then, do we cultivate loyalty in our relationships with each other and our God? Ruth provides a simple and yet profound answer. We stick around. We endure the bad times and celebrate the good ones. And, most of all, we draw strength from knowing that we can weather any storm because God will always remain faithful to his promises.  

 

Bright Ideas

  • The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest and most interesting stories in the Bible. Read it on your own or with others. Reflect upon the loved ones in your life whose loyalty has strengthened and supported you.

  • Download my prayer, In Thanksgiving for Loyal Loved Ones, and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

Forgiving Ourselves

  
  
  

One of the best lessons I learned about forgiveness came from a juggler. Several years ago, while preparing to give a talk on time management, I interviewed a juggler about his ability to keep so many things in the air at one time. When I asked about the secret to his art, his answer surprised me. It was not about dexterity, flexibility, concentration, or coordination. All of those things mattered, to be sure. They could also be honed with practice. The one essential trait for learning to juggle, he said, was the ability to forgive yourself.

Think about it. If the juggler isn’t able to forgive himself for dropping the balls, he won’t pick them up and try again. It’s why children are more adept at learning how to juggle than adults. They don’t find the ball-dropping a self-judgment or see their capacity for learning something new and challenging as finite. They pick them up and try again. 

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When teaching children the importance of forgiveness, we often neglect to include ourselves in the equation. Perhaps this is why so many people reach adulthood with chronic shame-and-blame patterns they find so difficult to break. I once heard this expressed when speaking to a group of parents whose children were preparing for First Reconciliation. One father spoke about his struggle with the resolution part of the rite. He explained that, while he was momentarily relieved by the extension of forgiveness, any feeling of peace quickly dissipated because he knew he would fall back into his same old patterns. Paul expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to the Romans. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

In her book, Emotional Alchemy, psychologist Tara Bennett Goleman describes the “schemas” that we each develop early in life as a response to the world around us. When faced with rejection or conflict, for example, we craft a reaction that repeats itself and follows us into adulthood. Neurological research has shown how these reactions are etched into our brains, thus ensnaring us in an endless cycle of self-recrimination. We drop the balls and walk away.

What does it take to forgive ourselves? Bennett-Goleman suggests paying attention to our schemas in non-judgmental fashion. This means shutting down the “shoulds” and merely observing our own behaviors. We can then explore some important questions. Where did we learn to withdraw, lash out, spread gossip, or sabotage others? What threatens us? What hurts us? What are we afraid of? This process offers the kind of compassionate space that, in our best moments, we afford to others. With time and intention we circumvent the harmful habits etched into our heads and begin to craft new responses that come from the heart. It is a lively, hopeful, and even playful way to discover that we can not only pick up the dropped balls but we can also add new, more colorful ones to the mix.

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Bright Ideas

  • This year’s theme for Catechetical Sunday is “Teaching about God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” Download resources from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to use in your parish or school.

  • Download my Prayer for a Merciful Heart and share it with your class or group.

 

 

 

 

photo © iStockphoto

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.

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