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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Waiting for the light.....

Three more murders yesterday in Baton Rouge.  A man in Minnesota.  One in Baton Rouge.  Five in Dallas, where police, who could surely have attached pepper spray or a "flash-bang" to that robot, blew the shooter to pieces.  How many in Nice; is it 84?  I walked that lovely promenade last September.  Now the lingering image is of the lone friend or family member sitting in the street beside a body just at dawn, keeping company with the dead.  And we should not forget the recent killing of over one hundred men, women and children near restaurants in Bagdad as they broke their Ramadan fast with neighbors.

I heard the erudite and delightful Ilia Delio, O.S.F., speak at Boston College last Saturday, her topic "Evolution and the Primacy of Love."  Many of her ideas grow from the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, twentieth century paleontologist and priest, who believed the human race is in self-conscious evolution.  The nature of the universe is undivided wholeness. The fifth force of the cosmos is love. 

Today, however, I recall someone quoting a sign on a display of the development of man in Paris's Museum of Natural History:  "The evolution of hominids is largely complete.  The evolution of human beings has barely begun."  What can I do as my heart drops again into that hollow place of helplessness.  I don't know how to pray any more. 

Last week in response to events in Nice the author of the blog Sicut Locutus Est  reran a posting from 2005 after the tsunami.  Watching news coverage, she heard a reporter ask some survivors when a muzzein calls, "Are you going to prayer?"   While some do go, one man who lost 24 members of his extended family shakes his head.  Through a translator he says, "No, not now.  Now I do not have it in me to pray."  The author looks for hope in the mourner's key word, "Now." But, she says, in times of terrible tragedy, especially those perpetrated by man on man,  "we often overwhelm those great human questions---those vast empty spaces and terrifying silences----with hope-filled murmuring about God's love...."  She finds she can not reassure even herself.

On the other hand, Delio reminded us of recent proof of "non-local action," responsive action between atoms, molecules, the tiniest bits of cosmic matter, separated by huge distances.  She quoted Henry Stapp, who says not just our actions, but even our thoughts do something. Perhaps it is enough today if I can turn my thoughts from disgust and sorrow at man's misplaced anger and our seemingly ubiquitous insanity.  I can send thoughts over great distances to join those men and women who embraced one another sobbing in Dallas, to the young woman in Minnesota who filmed her fiancĂ©'s death next to her in their car. I can imagine myself huddled next to a grieving figure in the street in Nice, waiting for the light.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Cultivating Gratitude and Wonder for Others

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” –Fred Rogers

Have you ever felt as though someone has formed an idea of you based on one interaction you had, a comment you made, or even based on another person’s opinion of you? Have you ever—intentionally or not—thought that you had someone “figured out” after meeting them, hearing his or her opinion in class or a meeting, or even just from talking about his or her favorite movies? What I’m trying to get at is that even when we don’t realize we’re doing it, we often make assumptions about other people before we truly get to know them. Personally, I tend to take a while to warm up to people and more than once have been mistaken for having a very serious and somber personality when I’m actually a fairly light-hearted person.

It’s natural to want to have someone figured out because it would help us more easily know how to act around them or to what types of conversations they would respond well or poorly; however I think it is something we are called to reflect more critically on as well. Making judgments about someone has the potential to cause harm, to be hurtful, to be divisive. When we think we have someone figured out, we no longer view that individual for who she is but for who we perceive her to be, which is unfair to both that individual and to ourselves. The times I have felt most misunderstood or unheard have been times that I feel someone has come into a conversation with preconceived ideas about my opinions and therefore does not actually hear what I have to say.

On the flip side, the most life-giving conversations, encounters, and relationships in my life have been ones in which I have been invited to be myself. To be heard for who I am rather than as the place I come from, the church I belong to, my gender or any other label I own or that someone else places on me. And when I approach others with an attitude of openness and wonder, I find that I learn more about others and myself, that I have a greater appreciation for the person’s story because I am able to really hear it.

Sometimes I find myself getting discouraged by how easily we label one another because in doing so, we lose out on so many opportunities to grow in relationship and to expand our own worldviews. I am definitely guilty of writing people off because of my first impression of them, but I think recognizing when we do this is an important step to cultivating better practices of attentiveness towards one another. It often feels safer not venturing past our perceptions of people because then we are able to “control” them in a way, or at least control how we want to see them. When we truly hear one another’s voices, stories, joys, and struggles, we let go of that control and accept the person in front of us as he or she is. When we begin to hear one another’s stories, we cannot help but see each other differently. We begin to see all people as fellow humans, each carrying his or her own burdens, gifts, to-do lists, memories, heartache, and joy. And that’s what being human is all about.

--Grace Koleczek

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Insights and Outbursts: Searching for spiritual nourishment in troubled times

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.”
John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong

I first met Margaret Silf in 2008 at the Bethany Spirituality Center in New York State when I made a five-day retreat and since that time have enjoyed her books and several retreats with her. I appreciate the simplicity of her writing and the ecumenical flavor of her spirituality, respecting the good in all religions but wary of any institution that claims it alone possesses the truth.

I enjoyed reading At Sea with God: A Spiritual Guidebook to the Heart and Soul and laughed at her introduction: “I was once reminded that the ark was built by an amateur, but the Titanic was built by professionals. This is a book written by an amateur, for amateurs, in the art of sailing life’s waters by a Christian compass.” One of my favorite books was The Other Side of Chaos, Breaking through When Life is Breaking Down because of a few lines I’ve never forgotten. Describing a time in her life, she wrote “It had been a moment that came out of the blue, and yet it has shaped every moment since. It hadn’t been about ‘believing’ anything then, but rather it was about a kind of knowing ... that, no matter what anyone says, you know what you know, and that deep foundational knowledge is unshakeable. You can stand on it. It is a rock. Perhaps it is the authentic meeting place with God.” Other favorites are: The Gift of Prayer: Embracing the Sacred in the Everyday; Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way; Wise Choices: A Spiritual Guide to Making Life’s Decisions; Compass Points: Meeting God Everyday at Every Turn; Landscapes of Prayer: Finding God in your World and your Life, a pictorial view “through some of the landscapes of your soul;” and Roots and Wings: the Human Journey from a Speck of Stardust to a Spark of God.

I hadn’t seen her for two years and looked forward to her talk “Growing into Tomorrow” last month at the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent in Brighton, hosted by “Sacred Threads, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to nourish, connect and inspire women by weaving spirituality into everyday life.”

Founded by Marie Labollita, a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Rosemary Mulvihill, a Sister of Mercy originally from Australia, it offers presentations by men and women of different faiths in or near the Boston area, and I’ve been blessed by those programs and their friendship. 

On Dec. 5, a friend and I drove into Boston for the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. program. Warmly greeted by Rosemary as she led us downstairs for coffee, I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman I met several years ago at the Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester and another woman I met on retreat in western Massachusetts.
I’ve often praised Road Scholar programs and retreats because I’m with “kindred spirits” and when I saw Margaret, was surrounded by people not satisfied by anything less than a spirituality that touches their lives, encouraging them to appreciate and share their stories. The talk began with a story about her 7-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Is heaven real?” which led Margaret to “a new regard for the value of questions and the inventiveness” of “thinking outside the box” as children do, “unless we enclose them in it.” 

The older I get, the more I feel overwhelmed by news reports of tragic events in this country and throughout the world, but recently several things helped me regain my sense of balance, including a long talk with a trusted friend, as well as walks, exercise classes, and a movie at the Rockport Public Library last month. “Miracle on 34th Street” was a simple love story that restored my faith in something larger than the commercialism of Christmas as well as a renewed faith in myself, grateful for spiritual mentors and friends who enrich my life.

I can’t do much about disasters reported on the news but I can make a difference in the way I live my own life, energized by finding my own “authentic meeting places” with God.

Eileen Ford,  a Rockport resident and a regular Times columnist

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Gift of Addressing How to Live And Die Well

Talking about living well is a generally enjoyable topic: what are the things that make life pleasant and bring me joy? That’s something I can definitely get my head around discussing. But talking about dying well? Not so much for me, or I suspect for most of us. And yet, death is a reality and it’s surely better to plan that process, as best you can, instead of dying and leaving your family and friends to wonder just what you might have had in mind for your “departure.”  That’s why I decided to attend Sacred Threads Center’s one-day workshop, “Can We Talk About Something Else? Difficult Conversations About Living Well and Dying Well;” I wanted to see what I could learn about the “Dying Well” part and hopefully find ways to live well today and be less fearful when thinking about the end of my life. Surprisingly, I learned that thinking about and planning the “dying well” part of life is a key factor in continuing to live well!
Rosemary and Marie, the Sacred Threads founders, have a way of presenting topics that cut right to the heart of the key issues we all face in our journeys. This day was exquisitely planned with four presenters who discussed different aspects of why, how, and when to have these conversations.

Facing Death

Guy Spinelli MD, began by discussing what he has learned from his patients about facing death. As he says, “life turns on a dime, so we ought to be thinking about our end of life wishes and have that conversation with our loved ones NOW because if we don’t have that conversation our wishes may not be honored.”  But when is the right time to talk about your wishes? Most of us think/pretend that death is too far away to worry about, and yet as Dr. Spinelli says “we never know what will happen when we walk out the door,” so he suggests that “the right time is now before a crisis occurs.”  He discussed one of the most important steps we need to take immediately if we haven’t done it so far, which is to complete a Health Care Proxy and assign someone you trust to carry out your wishes and speak on your behalf. (This is a legal document but does not require a lawyer for you to complete it. It is different than a living will, also called a directive to physicians or advance directive, which is a document that lets you state your specific detailed wishes for end-of-life medical care in case you become unable to communicate your decisions.) In addition there is a MOLST (POLST) form that you complete with your physician which details Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (usually printed on fluorescent paper and suggested for you to keep on your refrigerator or some easy to see place in your home). Phew! That’s three different forms that I’m betting most people haven’t prepared. Dr. Spinelli’s closing words were advising us to speak with our physicians so they can be advocates for our wishes.

Facing Realities

The next speaker, Deb Turiano, MD Associate Director of VNA Hospice and a palliative physician, echoed Spinelli’s advice and encouraged us to start having these conversations early and have them often. She suggests that we even have our children complete a Health Care Proxy when they turn 18. As she says, “We are a society of over-planners but we don’t plan for dying because we don’t want to have that talk.” She stresses that by making our end of life wishes known long before death is imminent, we can be sure that “what is most important about our humanness be recognized at the end of life.” Perhaps her most powerful suggestion is how to approach the conversation with our loved ones who often do not want to have the conversation with us. She suggests we start by saying, “I’m asking you for a gift—a gift of your time and your intention. This is really important to me and hope you will honor me with your gift of time so we can have this vital conversation.” Dr. Turiano’s gentle nature exudes a sense of peace about herself and her work. Perhaps that is a reflection of her perspective on her work; as she says, “she feels so privileged to be with people at the end of their lives.” And any of us would be privileged to have her with us at that time.

Honoring Choices

Richard and Gretchen Dagget are facilitators for an organization called Honoring Choices, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and assist adults in making health care plans and providing them the resources to have their choices honored. They recommend we follow a three-step program that provides guidance in planning for end of life.

1. Have a conversation with yourself about your choices.
2. Have a conversation with others and communicate those choices.
3. Prepare the appropriate documents to ensure your choices are honored.

So many people say they don’t want to “be a burden” to others at the end of their lives, but it is a burden not knowing a person’s desires! Echoing Dr. Turiano’s suggestion that we ask for the gift of time from our loved ones, they suggest we give family, spouse, health care proxy a copy of the book, “The Gift of Preparedness,” and they ended their presentation with a reminder of what Buddha said, “Unless you think about death, you can’t really live life.”
Facing God

“We know we’re alive. We know we’re going to die. But we never want to talk about death.” That is how Sr. Rosemary Mulvihill, the final presenter, took the conversation in a spiritual direction and asked us to think about our personal concept of God. She told three stories of her experiences with dying family members, how those experiences reflected each person’s concept of God and how that concept influenced each end of life experience.  As she says, “The type of God we have is very important.” Her great aunt saw God as Judge (“I don’t know what his judgment is going to be”). Her dear friend, a lapsed Catholic, sought a priest because she was angry at God for a personal tragedy she suffered; she saw her God as a Punisher for her religious lapse. Conversely, at the end of her life, Sr. Rosemary’s mother said, “I had a good life; I’m fine. I just want to see his face,” because her God was a Loving God. Three different concepts of God influenced each end of life experience. Sr. Rosemary reminds us that old age is an opportunity to “melt into God” and asks us, “Are we melting or resisting?” “How able are we to depend on God?” Perhaps if we realized that God is bigger and wider and greater than we can imagine and is “crazy about us,” it would help us to improve our relationship and our vision of God, which ultimately would influence every aspect of our lives. Lastly she told us that (in her opinion) at the end of our lives God will only judge us on one thing: How much did we love?  Perhaps if we could love more—love ourselves and others more—it wouldn’t be so hard or fear-inducing to die. Sr. Rosemary ended by asking us a poignant question:  “When you are passing over from life to death, who will be applauding most loudly for you when you arrive?” The answer is God.
As a result of attending this workshop, in the future when the subject of dying comes up, I will not say, “Can we talk about something else?” Rather, I will see the opportunity as a gift and know that it is a key to my “Living Well and Dying Well.”

Pamela Woodnick

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hearing Silenced and Overlooked Stories

Pope Francis challenges us to "look into the face of the asylum seeker and really hear
their story so that they are no longer a stranger to be feared and we can no longer be
indifferent to their need."  (6 September, 2015)

Let us pause to hear the story of the cry of the poor in the words of the Kenyan-born
Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
You only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well.
You only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
No one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
No one crawls under fences,
no one wants to be beaten, pitied.
No one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire.
I want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark.
Home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Portrait of the Face of the Church

Before a dear friend invited me to hear her speak, I had never heard of Joan Chittister. A few days after accepting the invitation, my friend and I attended the book release for her recently published biography. In what seemed like a few short minutes, I had the opportunity to listen to her discuss the biography with its author, Tom Roberts. There were a number of striking aspects of their discussion, including Joan’s remarkable humility with regards to the existence of the biography. Perhaps the most intriguing and for me, life-giving, part of their conversation was about how the biography came to be. Initially, Tom had come to Joan with the hopes of asking a few brief questions about her life so that he could “freshen up the files.” Tom was so enthralled with her story that he continued to ask questions out of sheer interest. As he continued, the questions grew deeper.

Joan recalled that there came a point in their interaction when the questions begged such depth and vulnerability in their answers that she had to request a pause in the interview. She revealed that in interviews past, she had skirted around genuine responses or produced formulated generic answers. She described what it was like to come to this point: to choose to be vulnerable and lay out her entire life for all to read or to stick to the chronically scripted answers of her past. It was the crossroads between self-emptying vulnerability and complacently scripted safety. After an intense and tumultuous period of contemplation, Joan decided that although it may be painful, she would respond with vulnerability, revealing the most hidden and tender parts of her past. And the beautiful book that is Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith was the result.

Joan’s exposition of this critical crossroads is intimately connected with one of the primary questions that she raised for me during our time together. That is, how do we answer questions of the identity of the Church? Joan opened my eyes to the fact that it is with her same courageous and terrifying vulnerability that we must approach our identity of who we are as the Catholic Church. If the Church were to be interviewed about her past and present identity, how would she answer? Who are we as the Church? Moreover, what does our identity as the Church communicate about the identity of our God?

In my sixteen-plus years of Catholic education, I have come to understand that God is all-loving. God is infinitely merciful. God is self-emptying, humble love for the whole of humanity. Are these characteristics of God communicated in the identity and actions of our Church? Unfortunately, I think the answers to this question would vary greatly both within and outside of the Church. Although some of the answers may be painful, this question is not only important, it is absolutely critical for the life of the Church. Joan’s action in choosing self-emptying vulnerability is a beautiful reflection of the actions of Christ on the cross. On the cross, Christ intimately revealed the depths of His identity, exposing Himself in worldly weakness to all of humanity. Thus, the Church is also called to expose itself in self-emptying vulnerability, such that she comes to mirror the endless and unconditional inclusivity and love of Christ.

Prior to hearing her speak, I had not even heard of Joan Chittister. Now not only have I heard of her, I hear her. Her words are alive within me. Her words burn me as I realize that the face of the Catholic Church has not and does not always reflect the face of the all-loving God that it has set out to represent. And this painful burn ignites my soul, my mind, my heart. As a member of the Church, Joan has reminded me of my fundamental duty to ask the hard questions about our identity, to give the painful answers of the past and/or present, and most importantly, to dedicate myself in self-emptying passion and love to the creation of the portrait of the future.

Maddie Jarrett

Monday, August 3, 2015

Are women recovering nags?

Today I scurried off to our local beach for a pre-dinner swim.  I left my sons and husband to sort out hamburgers and a salad. It was a risky choice, in terms of actually getting a meal, but it has been a long week for me and I needed a break.

My husband’s family has been visiting.  It is the first time that someone of our generation has hosted the whole crowed…nineteen in all.  I have new-found respect for my mother-in-law, Lynne who has been hosting all of us for the last twenty plus years.  Just dragging home the groceries to feed such a crowd is demanding.  Thank god we have markets.  At least we don’t have to “hunter/gather” and skin dead animals.

Having stripped, laundered and re-made the beds, reinstalled all the towels in the linen cupboard and dragged the trash and recycling to the curb, I thought I deserved some time to bob in the ocean and enjoy the last rays of the sun.

It was hard to leave.  The kitchen was littered with household debris.  The ironing board, poised in a corner, was ready to return to the cellar three days ago.  Groceries, now unpacked from bags, randomly graced the counters.  Crows had attacked the trash left momentarily by the back door. Could I leave such mayhem?

This is frequently my conundrum.  Over the years I have struggled to maintain some kind of order in my house.  Cleaning, cooking and laundering.  Doing it again the next day. In the middle of the night tripping over the size twelve shoes left in the center of the family room to let the elderly dog out or a teenager in who forgot their key, etc.   In those moments when I am ripping the last of my hair out and crying with frustration over the general disorder, my children have been known to point out that “people live here, Mom”.

I think it is their way of saying, “relax, chill, don’t be so uptight, there’s always going to be mess”.  And I guess they’re right…existentially.  But it’s also lingo for “stop nagging”.

I didn’t plan on being a nag.  In fact, I didn’t plan on being a mother.  I didn’t plan on a lot of things that seem to have happened despite other intentions.

I like to think of myself as a new-age kind of gal.  I have a master’s degree,  I work professionally.  So why am I crazed about lights left on, doors left open to mosquitos, wet towels on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink?

As I was returning from the beach today after my restorative swim, I heard a woman’s voice loudly directing someone.  She was hunched over the deck of their ocean-facing bungalow.  Still in her “beach cover-up” she was earnestly wringing out bathing suits and towels and draping them over the railing.  Her husband and young son, whom I had witnessed earlier returning from a fishing expedition, were fast approaching. 

“How nice!” she said loudly.  She smiled encouragingly and admired the two blue fish held aloft by her son.  But, suddenly, her tone changed.  

“They’re dripping”, she screamed as her son approached her.  “They’ll drip all over the deck.” Raising her head to toward the husband lurking outside my view she asked even more loudly “Are they cleaned?” and, finally, at top volume, “For god’s sake, Larry, don’t put them in the sink.  We’ll never get the stink out.  We’ll lose the security deposit.”

I smiled.  Here we go again I thought.  Another woman trying to hold it all together.  Another woman worrying about the security deposit, the ruined deck, the stink.  Probably, at the back of her mind, she’s wondering if she’ll actually have to cook the fish.  And then, will anyone eat them?  How will she dispose of the carcass?  What was quaint and charming and bonding to her husband has now become her personal burden. 

I felt for that woman.  Ostensibly on vacation in a breathtaking location, she was still carrying her load.  Like myself, she seemed innately to be planning, worrying, organizing.  Why?  Why are women built this way? 

Because we love the people we hold close to us.  We want them to be happy.  We want them to be safe.  We want them to grow up and have good jobs and nice spouses and bring their children home to us so we can worry about (and love) them too.  We want them to stay out of jail, drive safely, pay their bills, get exercise and vote democratic.  Life is hard and we know that. 

Our spiritual task is to have faith that we’ve done the best we can.  And best is good enough.  People do live here and they make mess. Physical, emotional, existential mess.  When I say the serenity prayer each morning it’s because I’m a recovering nag.