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Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive Brain Cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year just after he finished his initial treatment, a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.

He lived 2 ½ years. The course of his illness was hands down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.

However it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.

We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.

We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.

We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”

We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”

And we did.

We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.

We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire life -time, being born in the morning and dying in the Father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”

Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.

When we were overwhelmed we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.

As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”

Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my THINK is fine!”

At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time!” And anyway, he was laughing too! “What!?” he would say, “I speak the King’s English!”

We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.

One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take! It was so funny!

At chemotherapy we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there too and played for everyone with the I.V. in his arm.

Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.

He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”

He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.

Being able to serve was important to him as a person.

Eventually, he began to be paralized on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.

He was a do-er and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”

He was an artist but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was very difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet. He could no longer play guitar.

He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said,
“Shawn! I can’t DO anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t DO!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I STILL LOVE!”

I knew what he meant.

He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the Church now!”

We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermits’ life and to pray.

To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as Servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the Man on the Cross. He is not doing anything because He is crucified.” Ah but He was doing EVERYTHING, wasn’t He?

Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear we found the Kingdom of Heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.

God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with Covid-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.

This is my husband’s painting of us praying together during his fight with Brain Cancer. He called it “Miracle.”

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* This piece originally ran as my column in The Bryan College Station Eagle

“Be the first to love” at the grocery store

Where you find no love, put love, and then you will find love.” ~ St, John of the Cross

I had a birthday cake to make on March 12. My eldest daughter, Maire was turning 27 the next day. This is her first birthday home in Texas again in years and she is so glad to be here.

I planned to make a Mexican Chocolate Cake (dense chocolate with a little kick from a pinch of hot pepper powder.)

I wanted a yellow rose (the Yellow Rose of Texas, of course) for a little cake top arrangement as well.

I had heard news of emptied out grocery stores in other places, and even a couple of local complaints. I tend to resist getting caught up in that sort of thing so I didn’t really pay attention too much.

The emotional climate in the store was distressing. People seemed angry and upset, even banging their shopping carts around. Almost everyone I saw seemed scared, furtive even. No one was making even passing eye contact.

Workers looked exhausted and rushed.

Young people in particular looked dazed, some standing and staring at the place where something they had been looking for was supposed to be.

I thought of my Focolare friend, Julia, who had been looking for ways to be useful during the Corona Virus outbreak. She and some others had some great ideas. I felt unsure of how to be useful and I still do.

The Focolare have a saying, “Be the first to love.”

“Jesus what can I do?”

The first thing I could think of was to smile at people if I did happen to catch their eyes. This was encouraging exercise because I could see some visibly relax and several smiled back. It was a Jesus smile I think because then they smiled at others too.

Some of the things I needed for the cake were hard to find. Sugar was in very short supply. I did find some raw sugar eventually. I tried to joke with a couple of people and it went well. They were ready to laugh. We laughed about how crazy it all was.

There was no salt. There were a lot of empty shelves. It made me kind of scared too, to see that. I had never seen that before.

When I saw young people staring at things and looking confused I tried to help them find what they were looking for. At first I was stupid and picked up the item when I found it and they probably thought, “No thanks since you touched it, Stranger, and that was the last one too!” Oh yeah. I did better the next time.

I saw tired children looking around wide eyed as their flustered parents negotiated the crowds. I tend to feel overstimulated and anxious in crowds myself. I told one kid, “Hey you are being really good in the store! My youngest is 22 and she isn’t as good in the store as you are!” If a child was crying I tried to give a sympathetic look.

I finally had everything I needed, thank goodness.

I went ahead and got some beans and rice which, as a vegan, I kind of have to have. They were almost completely out. I took one small bag of each. My pay day is not for a few more days so I can imagine other people having to wait until pay day too and then everything would be gone. I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. Lots of reasons not to take more than I needed.

I tried to notice when other people were attempting to reach for things I was reaching for too and let them go first. That’s hard for me since I usually don’t notice things like that. But I tried.

I had intended to pay in cash as I usually do but I didn’t because the cashiers would have to touch that.

I felt so sorry for the young women at the register. They looked exhausted; flushed, sweaty and scared. I found out one of them was from some other department but had to come help and neither of them had gotten off work hours ago when they were supposed to be off. I thanked them so much for being there and I said I was sorry for what they were going through. They seemed to appreciate it a little bit.

I told Jesus on my way out, “Those poor girls! Please protect them and give them strength.”

On the way home people drove crazy. It made me sad. But I felt lifted up just a little bit and I had a sense of peace beneath the worry. Maybe some of the people in the store did too.

That brief experience made me think that if we can try to connect even for a second in the little ways that we can, and smile a little bit sometimes, it might lift us all up just that much more. We could use that right about now.

Maybe the reason you find love when you invest love is that it isn’t really that your love comes back to you but that Jesus is there whenever we try to give love even just that little bit, in a tough situation and he multiplies the love just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes.

We are all going to need a lot of love.

Jesus walk among us and help us remember love even a little bit in the days ahead, and to see you multiply our smallest investments.

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Book Review of Abuse of Trust: Healing from Clerical Sexual Abuse

I wrote this book review for both The Eagle newspaper and for ATX Catholic. I think it is such an important book and such an urgent issue that I wanted to share it everywhere I can.

http://atxcatholic.com/index.php/2019/07/book-review-of-abuse-of-trust-healing-the-church/#.XUC05uhKjIV

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Selah

I was a young widow running through the house kicking toys out of my way, spilling my coffee, responding to a loud crash at the other end of the house. I had been cooking, having invited somebody over for dinner, (what was I thinking,) my toddler was running from the scene of the crime, my five year old was screaming, and my dog ran by with a piece of cornbread in her mouth. “OK,” I said to myself. “OK.”

I stopped. “OK.”

Selah. 

I set my coffee down. I took a breath. I looked outside at the juniper tree by my front porch. I noticed a thin branch trembling from the hesitant hops of a sparrow along it. I closed my eyes, felt the wood of the floor under my feet, breathed a silent prayer.

It was a centering moment.

I let the toddler get away. I hugged the outraged five year old. I attempted to salvage dinner. Life went on; just with a little bit more clarity, renewed meaning, and divine order.

The word Selah appears 71 times in the Psalms, and 3 times in Habakkuk. It often appears between stanzas of the Psalms, as if to tell the reader to pause and reflect. The precise meaning of the word is unknown, though some of the educated guesses are, “Pause,” “Lift up,” “Praise.” It could have been a musical term similar to our “rest” sign. It may have been a direction about how to read the verses, as in where to stop and take a breath.

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In my life, “Selah” has become a practice of putting a pause on exterior and interior clamor and connecting to the Real, to lift up my heart,  my situation, the world for a moment, to praise God by an act of mindfulness of His holy presence.

Eventually, developing this habit can lead to a greater general awareness of God at all times, and a natural continuous turning toward Him, in His outward expression and presence in the created world, and in His indwelling in the human heart.

Selah, as “stop and listen,” helps me deal with overwhelming emotions, fearful thoughts, angry rants I discover raging in my mind, to stop or at least slow the wheel of worries that can spin on its own mysterious power for disconcerting amounts of wasted time. Sometimes Selah is just a quiet moment of gratitude in the middle of a busy or even not so busy day.

The meaning of Selah as “lift up” may have been a reference to the scales used at the time.  An object was weighed by being lifted on a scale against a counter weight. So Selah can also mean to weigh, to evaluate. Selah as “lift up and weigh” helps me place all things in the balance of God, lifting up my mind with all its wild beating of wings against its imaginary cage, when it needs to be set free to fly in Heaven’s peaceful skies, even for a moment. Grace can do that if we let it.

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Even a tiny fraction of a second that we open ourselves to God is enough time for Him to do all that is needed.

An instant of conscious contact with the holy changes us, whether we feel it or not. We invite Him Who is all good, into ourselves, and into the world through us. God can do anything. He isn’t limited by time, that’s us.  We can use time to drive ourselves crazy, or we can use as much time as we can to help God help us, and to open ourselves to be channels for the  outflow of His grace into the world.

Selah as praise helps me accept what is, as where God has me in the moment, whatever is happening, and to step into my inner chapel, to build a little alter, a temple in the day.

During a difficult day, this can even be necessary in order to hold onto the strength that comes from God. I heard a priest at a San Antonio Marian Conference say once that when we adore God, nothing evil can touch us. I never forgot it, because I found it to be true. Adore the Lord in His holy court,says Psalm 29It’s what’s going on in Heaven all the time. We can join in at any moment, and the grace of praise, which Psalm 8 says foils the enemy, is ours, grace that the Scriptures say God inhabits. 

But You are holy, O You that inhabit the praises of Israel. Ps. 22:3

So how do we practice Selah in the ongoing Psalm of our day?

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Selah. Pause. This is simple but not easy. We forget. We get busy, or in a hurry. We freak out. We don’t notice ourselves or what is around us because we are worried or sad, or scared, maybe mad, maybe caught up in the constant wild flow of the negative distractions of the world. Maybe our minds are flying down the rapids of our thoughts and experience, without direction or control.

Sometimes it helps to stop, and notice the sky, to be mindful of the wind, of the sounds around us, of the feeling of the grass or the floor under our feet, the feeling of our own breathing. Getting grounded helps us connect to God. When we stop being carried away by the whirlwind of our worries and busyness, we can dip into an undercurrent of peace. Try stopping and just noticing your environment, tune in to your senses, and then, if you can, go deeper within yourself where it is quiet and God waits for you.

I found myself unconsciously putting up a hand in a one handed prayer pose as a kind of “Selah” in personal sign language. Sometimes coming up with a simple, unobtrusive gesture to myself can really help my state of mind. I still do that hand gesture sometimes without thinking, and it can bring about the inner calm and readjustment of attitude I need without saying anything or particularly thinking any word.

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Selah: Lift up.  Especially when I am feeling overwhelmed, I try to think, “What is going on?” Sometimes something is really bothering me, but I don’t realize it. Prayerfully accounting for my inner state with God often helps me to step out of my anxiety, to get organized inside, gain perspective. I can lift the whole thing, and myself to God and in this way give over to Him any and everything that is a mess, inviting Him into it to arrange it to His will. Sometimes I have to repeat this step. OK, I almost always have to repeat it several times. When I can let go and let God, he sets me on a high rock, so I can see.

Maybe I just want to hug God, for no particular reason. A little Selah can help me stop and do just that.

Prayer is, for me, an outburst from the heart; it is a simple glance darted upwards to Heaven; it is a cry of gratitude and of love in the midst of trial as in the midst of joy! In a word, it is something exalted, supernatural, which dilates the soul and unites it to God.

~ St. Therese, the Little Flower

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Selah: Praise.  It seems to me that it is a praise of God to focus on Him, to be grateful for His beauty and presence, to focus our attention on Him, to love and acknowledge Him. We can praise God by a simple glance in His direction. Sometimes I say, “ The lot marked out for me is my delight because it is You Yourself Who are my prize.” Sometimes it is easier to say than others. Sometimes I don’t say anything. I just place myself in His light and do my best to adore.

A good way to do this is to imagine Jesus with you. Really, this isn’t your imagination because it is the truth. You are just tuning into it.

Or remember that the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, fills the universe, and is Love Itself, always drawing us into the life of the Blessed Trinity. You are a part of that vastness that is filled by the Spirit of God, along with the sky and the sun and the stars and planets beyond them, and every bug, butterfly, and blade of grass or drop of rain on the planet. The Scripture says that all of it praises God.

Let yourself join in the praises of Heaven and Earth just by remembering what you are: a child of God, a little brother, a little sister, of Jesus. All these things are good to think about.

Or think of God speaking to you through your senses. Because He is. Let tuning into your senses quiet your body, your heart and mind, and then step further, inside that quiet, to be with God in your soul.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity said the name she wanted in Heaven was “Praise of His glory.” St. Paul says in Ephesians 1:12 that this is what we are. Stopping and listening puts us in touch with this. It’s about just being for a moment. It gives us a glimpse of divine perspective.

…that we may be unto the praise of his glory.

Pause. Lift up. Praise.

St. John of the Cross said,  “With what procrastination do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. A stop in the path. This very moment.

Selah.

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Say, “This is the time for my soul.”

When your heart says to God, “you have cut off my life

like a weaver severs the last thread, “

when you’re alone in the desert on a cold night

with no fire,

and you’ve never known such emptiness

or alienation

and you say in your alarm, “no man can can be trusted!”

When your life is born away from you

like a tent struck down

and you feel you have nothing left to give,

that you are broken to the core

and you cannot imagine your restoration,

when even the sunrise seems cold and heartless

and you think, ” there is no love in my heart at all!”

know that all you ever had came from God.

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Don’t be afraid anymore.

Say to yourself in the cave of your heart,

“this is the time for my soul.”

God is closer than ever before.

Your restoration is in the depths of his will

and in time to come,

the love in your heart will be renewed

and be all his.

You have nothing to give, so wait to receive

in his time.

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Be patient in suffering.

Persevere in prayer.

Trust in not knowing

even who you are anymore,

except that you are his.

Be little, be weak, sit quietly in the shadow of death

and say to your empty heart, “this is the time for my soul.”

Allow this darkness of unknowing.

“Let it be done to me according to thy word,” she said,

even at the cross,

and on that desolate Holy Saturday

when she sat in darkness deeper than any she had ever known could be.

She suffered unspeakably.

Still she trusted, remaining present in the very bleakness of her heart.

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So you, her child, alone in your desert,

you desolate of heart,

when you say to yourself, “my one companion is darkness, “

say, “This is the time for my soul.”

A time of grace.

Your light will come

As God defines it.

And that joy no one shall take from you.

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A first aid kit for times of crisis

When you are in a time of intense suffering; grief, dread, or emotional overload, when you are walking around the house just staring at things, when getting through the day seems impossible, and you don’t know what to do with yourself, read this:

1. Do the next right thing. This might be eating a sandwich, sweeping the floor, going for a walk. Do one thing at a time. Do the task, and then do the next one. My mother used to say, “Wipe your table, sweep your kitchen floor, make your bed, and call me back.” It works.

2. Section off the day into manageable pieces.
You don’t have to suffer the way you feel, or the situation you are in forever, only for today. Divide the day up into sections. Think of something you are going to do at the end of each time period to mark its end and transition into the next one.

I have used:

  • calling a friend
  • reading a daily devotional or thought for the day
  • a novena prayed every hour instead of once a day
  • praying the Liturgy of the Hours through the day
  •  a short walk

These little things are anchors and dividers in the day to help re-center, reground, and chop a long, difficult day into chunks you can manage. This helps a lot.

My mom used to say, “Brush your teeth, wash your face, say your prayers, and start your day over again.”

“You can start your day over again,”  she would say, “any time,” and as many times as you need to.

3. Master your thoughts. In times of crisis the mind becomes crowded with speculative, negative, or questioning thoughts that are very unhelpful.

These thoughts might be about blaming yourself or others, trying to figure out how or why something happened, why or whether God allowed it, or going over and over possible outcomes to a frightening situation you may be in.

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These lines of thought, and others like them, are tricks of the well meaning brain, trying to problem solve, predict the future, or give us a sense of control or order.This not only wastes precious energy, it overloads us emotionally and mentally, and can block us from accessing real wisdom and strength which would help us to peace. As my dad says, “There’s no truth in those thoughts.”

When you find yourself spinning your wheels this way, try to catch yourself and dismiss unhelpful thoughts. Don’t be mad at yourself, don’t be mean about it, just say to the mind, “Nope. Not today.”

Routinely stopping and observing your surroundings, and saying a set, short prayer, might help you let go of the offending train of thought.

I like to imagine putting all my fears and problems into the hands of Jesus, or putting them in Mary’s lap to pray over for me.

If you dismiss unhelpful thinking over and over, it works surprisingly well to help you feel better, make room for grace, and give you a sense of true empowerment.

4. Be your own best friend. It’s hard enough feeling horrible, but you can make it so much harder by being disappointed in yourself, and by what psychologists call  “negative self -talk.” One day I was so mad at myself for not being further along in my grief (whatever that means,) for not getting anything done, for being a wimp.

I felt that the Lord asked me if I would treat my friend, Jocie, that way if she came over feeling like I felt right now. “No, I would never talk to her like this.” I would love her, encourage her, and take care of her. I understood that this was how Jesus wanted me to treat myself for His sake.

Please be kind and accept yourself. Be sensitive to yourself. Understand that some days you’re doing well just to make it through the day and let it be that kind of day, if it is that kind of day. Do for yourself what you would do for a best friend. Think of it as a way to practice surrender and humility. Because it is.

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5. Pray. You will feel like you can’t pray sometimes. The 11TH Step of Alcoholics Anonymous mentions prayer as “conscious contact” with God.  That is always possible. It’s OK if you don’t feel prayerful. Today, focus on what St. Therese called a “simple look toward Heaven.” Some things I have done in times of shock, fear, trauma, or grief, are: clutching my Bible to my chest simply holding a rosary making some physical gesture of prayer without forming any thoughts or words offering my pain to God in union with Jesus on the Cross visualizing putting my head against Jesus’ chest just being in the darkness, knowing, with “naked faith” (St. John  of the Cross) that God was with me.Holy music can really help. Try playing spiritual music that centers you, on these kinds of days. This is setting up and environment of prayer for yourself.Strangely, prayers of praise in the midst of suffering can be a powerful catalyst for peace of heart.

“Blessed be God.Blessed be His Holy Name.”~ The Divine Praises

May God’s transforming love be with you in your suffering, as we, the Church, are with you, and may the Holy Spirit comfort you and give you peace. Right now. Today.

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Sunrise: through the dark faith of Advent to the brightness of Christmas

Traveling through Advent with grief this year has led to me to soul search about what Christmas is, and, in the process, to notice similarities between the journey of Advent into Christmas and the stages of the soul’s progression into the heart of God.  According to Carmelite spirituality,  the soul first travels through and away from outward distractions, into inward beauty, then into the deep pain of the dark night when even these lovely interior gifts are removed and the soul’s perception of them and consequently, of God, is radically changed. This happens so that the true nature of God can be apprehended by naked faith and purified love. In this way, the soul is prepared for union with God, and begins to radiate peace and love through His indwelling presence.

Throughout this journey, the soul finds that the things around God, even things that point to or reflect God, are not God Himself. The soul has to learn to relate to all these other things in a whole new way that has to do with loving God as He is in Himself. This is something which God will begin mysteriously to teach the willing and loving soul, who responds to God, in and through this suffering, with more and more surrender and determination. God will transform that soul, making it able to receive God in pure faith, hope and love.

In a similar way, the journey through Advent prepares us for the very real grace of Christmas, which is beyond all of the outward and even inward trappings that surround Christmas itself. We journey through all these things to the heart of Christmas, and thereby receive its true grace.

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Advent is full of things that are good and point the way to Christmas, but they are not Christmas itself. I can be distracted by the outward show of the season; the lights, the gifts, the traditions, the social interactions. These outward things can be good, used to serve others and remind us of the birth of Jesus. But they are not Christmas itself.

Even the people in our lives, whom we love and enjoy, and/or who cause us a lot of stress at this time of year one way or the other; they point the way to Christmas because they are our school of love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and communion. They reflect the love of God to us. But people and relationships are not actually Christmas itself.

The events we plan with our families and friends, as good (or as stressful) as they can be, are not Christmas either.

Our feelings, memories and thoughts, so intensified (sometimes painfully, sometimes happily) during this time of the year, are part of our journey. Our expectations, our longing for unity, joy, peace, justice and beauty, are all from God and are holy. They point us to the meaning of the Nativity, and to the joys of Heaven. But even these are not Christmas itself.

Sometimes I am happy about shared love and memories with family and friends. Sometimes I am keenly aware that I am in deep mourning. Some years I have truly felt that I have known Christmas joy. Other years I did not feel it. But it is still Christmas, whatever I think or feel.

Cultural expressions of the season, social events, our relationships,  and even our inmost feelings, all these things, painful or joyful as these may be, are not Christmas. These are things that surround Christmas, that reflect its light.

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What is Christmas? Is it just a remembering of the birth of Jesus? I think it is that, but what else is it?

Does something actually happen at Christmas?

I think Christmas is a remembering by us, the Church, that makes present and re-presents an eternal reality. With this remembering, I believe, Heaven cooperates whole heartedly.

I believe that at Christmas, by a special grace, there is a sunrise that bathes every face, a release of extra love and light coming through the heart of the Church, Christ’s Body, that shines on everyone.

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The Church prays for it: “Grant….that the the coming solemnity of [the Nativity of ] your Son may bestow healing upon us in this present life.” ~ from the Liturgy of the Hours Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Jesus has come into the world and continues to be with us.

Christmas is true no matter what happens with events outside or inside myself, or how I perceive them.

Christmas is real, and that sunrise is there.  It’s coming.

The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

-The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

To give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory that appears on the face of Christ.

-He has shown in our hearts.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.~Responsory from Morning Prayer from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours, Feast of St. John of the Cross.

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  • I originally wrote this piece in Advent of 2015

Christmas Shopping with Jesus

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“When Black Friday comes,
I’m gonna dig myself a hole,
I’m gonna lay down in it ‘till I satisfy my soul.”
-Steely Dan

The Advent Season is at the same time as the Shopping Season. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish, when December comes, that I could spend my Advent and Christmas as a hermit  instead.

I would probably miss my brother though.

I told Jesus how much this time of year stresses me out.

There is so much to do and the whole soundtrack of Advent is Christmas music when it isn’t Christmas. They play and play those Christmas songs everywhere you go, and by the time Christmas comes I don’t even want to hear Joy to the World  ever again.

I hate shopping, even on line.

I am prone to mall nausea.

Jesus listened in silence. He is good at that.

He has been helping me pack, since I am in the middle of moving.

“Can’t we just trick all the stores by moving Christmas to some other time?”

He sat back on his heels, smiling at me. “Let’s go shopping.”

“What, right now?”

But he was already putting on his shoes. Which means I had to put on mine, too.

He wanted to go to Wal-mart. I hate that place. But I drove him there.

There was a lot of traffic, and some people were not driving in their right minds. I growled at them, but I said, “God bless you, have a nice day,” because what else can you say with that guy around?

When we arrived, he wanted to sit in the parking lot and hold my hand for a while.

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So we held hands sitting in the car.  I looked at him sometimes, and sometimes I watched the people going by. So many of them were smiling, though many seemed pre-occupied. People handed each other carts, stepped aside for the elderly, grinned conspiratorially at the children, many of whom were skipping or jumping up and down. Parents looked at each other over their children’s heads and laughed.

I thought about how even in the midst of the over commercialization of the season, it is true that people seem to treat each other with a little more kindness. Maybe there is something to the magic of the season after all. It’s Jesus coming out in people at his special time of year.

Jesus said his mom always took him shopping when she went, that he loved going with her.

I thought about that.

We always think of Mary’s pregnancy during Advent. She was filled with Jesus. She took him everywhere. From what Elizabeth said at the Visitation, his presence could be felt in her. I imagined Mary, very big and pregnant, doing the shopping, smiling, knowing.

Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let’s go.”

At the front doors, he made sure I donated to the Salvation Army, and reminded me to thank the bell ringer for being out there.

He drew me into conversation with some little boys who were raising money for their team, prompting me to ask questions that seemed to please them.

We walked through the tinseled Wal-Mart, noticing people and blessing them. He pointed out to me the ones who were tired or worried or sad, and had me pray for them. He showed me examples of people being kind to one another across the usual social boundaries we rarely think about and seldom disregard. I began to kind of almost like Wal-mart.

I bought some dog food and we silently blessed all the people in the check out line; especially the young mother with the crying baby and  fussy toddler, the cashier who looked as if she had worked a double, and the old man who counted his change out so slowly and then did it again.

I felt happy.

But then Jesus said that the mall was next.

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Bother.

Yep, there was that Christmas music. He smiled, I noticed. He said he likes Christmas music all the time.

It was crowded in the mall and I was almost instantly over stimulated. He patted me on the back.

He thought I should try smiling from the heart at everyone I saw.

This simple exercise had an amazing curative effect on my nerves.

I started seeing possible gifts my daughters might like a lot. I even started to feel a little excited. I walked a little faster. I thought how easy to please both my daughters are, and how much I love them.

As we made our way through the mall, Jesus reminded me to say a kind word to everyone I interacted with, even to go out of my way to compliment people. I was surprised how much this little effort brightened people’s faces, and mine, too.

He wanted to go into a store that looked really glitzy to me. I dislike places like that. They make me feel ridiculous.

Sure enough when we stepped across the threshold, I noticed the hole in the toe of my shoe, became conscious of the eccentric bent and general sloppiness of my clothes, the fact that I have not worn make up in years.

Looking at all those expensive beauty products on mirrored surfaces, all those swanky clothes, the fashion show music, the fast pace, being surrounded by the fashionable and well dressed, made me unusually self conscious. Then I was annoyed at myself for caring.

Jesus pinched me. Because in my self absorption, I had not noticed a teenaged girl whose bag had come open on the bottom. Her items fell and rolled across the slick, polished aisle and under clothes racks, scattering hopelessly. People stepped over her things, or avoided her or stared at her, but nobody was helping her and she was embarrassed, as teens tend to be.

I helped her find everything, even getting on my hands and knees and crawling under hanging coats, smiling because it reminded me of hiding from my mom in stores as a kid.

All her things restored to her, and a new bag procured, the embarrassed teen was on her way, hopefully feeling a little better, and thinking of what was for dinner.

On our way out, Jesus and I passed one of those triple mirrors that help you see your new outfit from every angle. As I walked by, I saw an unexpected flash of color and retraced my last two steps. I saw myself in a golden dress with bracelets on my arms, rings on my fingers, and gold sandals on my feet, a small crown on my head. I laughed as the vision faded, and the voice in my ear said, “This is how you look, to ME.” I closed my eyes in sheer joy.

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When I opened my eyes, he had slipped away.  He must have gone to help someone else so I got into the car alone, knowing he had his own ride home.

At a very busy intersection I saw him standing on a corner holding one of those signs saying that he was hungry, and would someone please help.

I hate when he stands on a corner where I can’t get to him unless I go to the next exit and turn around and almost get in a wreck trying to help him. But I did it anyway. I even gave him a hug along with the money. He patted me and said, “God bless you.”

Back in my car, I turned on the radio. Matt Maher was singing “Alive Again” and it made me cry a little bit.

“You called and You shouted
Broke through my deafness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again

You shattered my darkness
Washed away my blindness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again”

I understand. The spirit of Advent, Lord, is in listening to you, noticing you, and spending time with you in the ways you lead me to, loving in all the ways the world around me offers… even in shopping and going to Wal-Mart and the mall.

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  • I originally wrote this in 2014. It appeared on ATX Catholic and also in my newspaper column at Bryan Eagle.  🙂

Stay calm, access peace; for your good and the good of all

With constant developments in the news about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, and constantly breaking political news, these are extremely stressful times. How do we keep some equilibrium so we can be any use to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters in these dark, difficult and divisive days? Every day it seems like there are more bomb shells. How do we sustain them?

I messaged a friend the other day, “How ARE we going to keep calm these crazy days?” She wrote back:

“I’m going to be drinking! You don’t drink, so you shall have to pray, I suppose. :P”

I do plan to pray a lot, in whatever way I can, but most of all, I plan to pray in ways that simply keep me connected to God.

As a Carmelite, I have a strong belief that cultivating a constant, loving awareness of the presence of God within is a service to the world, and that it has a gracious effect on everything, and everybody.

I believe that when I am recollected, and in conscious contact with God, I have opened the fountain of living water in my soul. By doing so, I become a channel of grace for the world.

Unsealing the living fountain of the Holy Spirit in my own soul mysteriously helps others do the same, and somehow they are helping me as well. To me, this is part of the Communion of Saints.

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“Let us draw from the springs of salvation

for our selves, and for the entire parched world.”

~ St. Edith Stein

Also, staying connected to God helps me to keep closer to His perspective when things get a little crazy.

It also reminds me that whether there is the earthly appearance of what I think is justice or not, God is going to win in the end, win in His kind of way, and that His win lasts forever. My sister in Carmel, Pat Thompson says that God’s will is always love. Whatever happens, I can trust that will of love is still at work.

So, in these days of fear, anger and chaos, grief, division and anxiety, I hope to remain connected and recollected.

I know I will have to be focussed about this commitment to myself, to God, and to the world. Sometimes I might become overwhelmed with what’s going on. However, I hope to make a consistent effort to draw myself back to the center every time; that center of my soul, and the center of the whole of existence, where God is. Here are some tips about staying on track for inner peace during your day.

Make a plan for your day that cultivates peace.

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  • Plan, whether you are at work, or at home today, and the days ahead, to cultivate serenity. It’s not going to help anything or anybody for you to freak out, right?
  • It may be a good idea to limit your engagement with what’s going on during the day, and to limit your media consumption, to the minimum.
  • Visit the Blessed Sacrament. Even popping in for a few seconds helps. If you can’t get there, here is adoration live. 
  • Plan some stopping points at certain times to settle down and re-center, and make a simple plan for what you will do. Sometimes you just need a few minutes with some calm music, a view of nature, something nice to drink.
  • Go to mass if your schedule permits.
  • Plan to pray The Liturgy of the Hours; however many of the set hours you can pray. (Morning, Mid Morning, Midday, Mid- afternoon, Evening and Night Prayer.) Universalis is a good site to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for free. You may also like The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary on-line, a Marian version, so to speak, of the Liturgy of the Hours. Also free. Check in with the Liturgy of the Hours any time, and pray with others all over the world.
  • Plan to do acts of kindness and/or sneaky good deeds. You will feel great. Leave someone a flower. Pay it forward at a drive through. Give something to a homeless person or engage him or her in conversation. Do a chore for someone else in your household or at work, to lighten their load. Here is a list of acts of kindness if you can’t think of anything.
  • Make time in your day to interact with your pet. Even a quiet moment spent petting or brushing your dog or cat can raise your spirits and calm your heart.
  • Look at art that uplifts you. Plan ahead to do this, or check out I Require Art on Face Book. I love looking at that page. It is also on Twitter.
  • Have coffee with a friend and catch up. This does wonders.

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Just for a Day

Pick one of these to do now and then. You can do something for a 24 hours period that would be overwhelming to do for a lifetime. But it is great training!

  • Hug people today, whenever possible. Seriously. This helps them and you.
  • Just for today, no fighting with anyone. Fight tomorrow. Not today. You can do it just for your waking hours in this next 24. Have a day like that now and then.
  • Have peaceful things to read that are helpful to you, comforting, or don’t get you emotionally stirred up. Don’t read anything else, just for today.
  • Plan to be extra caring with the people around you today. Remind yourself often that this is your intention today: to be kind. All day.
  • If you have a baby or a little kid in your family, read with him, cuddle with her. Spending time talking with a little kid can be healing. Plan on it. Make it part of your day today.
  • Eat comforting foods. It’s one day. Don’t worry about it. Plan comfort food meals for your family. Try to limit dinner talk to peaceful topics. Just for today.
  •      Make peace your highest priority just for one day.  
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“Let nothing steal your treasure.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

 

If you become overwhelmed, here are some quick ways to calm down:

  • Push your palms together for a moment.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Shake out your limbs.
  • Breath in through your nose slowly (count five) and then out through your mouth (count five.) Keep going with this for a while if it helps you.
  • Stop what you are doing- especially stop interacting with whatever or whoever is upsetting you. Turn off the T.V. Get away from that person. Get off social media. Whatever it is, stop it.
  • Tune in to the moment: Feel the floor (of whatever you are standing on,) hear the sounds far away, the sounds near you, the feel of whatever you are touching. Be conscious of your breathing. Look out of the window, at the sun, at the sky, at the trees or whatever is around you. Notice what’s going on in this present moment.
  • Go for a brisk walk. Pray the rosary or inwardly repeat the Holy Name of Jesus, or the sweet name of Mary as you walk. Let your inner, prayerful repetition fall into rhythm with your steps and your breathing. Pray with your whole body, mind and eventually, heart.
    • If you can’t pray the rosary, just hold it.  Think of it as holding Our Lady’s hand.
    • Slow down your responses to anything agitating that people say. Think before you respond back. A good thing to remember before you speak is, “Is [what I am about to say] true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
    • Intentionally tense different muscle groups, and then release them. It’s very calming.
    • Make a list of five things you are grateful for, of five people you love, and even what you love about them.
    • Do a simple task you do all the time, but do it mindfully. Sweep the floor patiently. Wipe the table. Brush your hair. Water plants.
    • Wash your face, or sprinkle cold water on your wrists and dab it behind your ears.
    • Call a sympathetic, or light hearted friend. Say you don’t want to talk about current events. You want to talk about turtles or something.
    • Watch something funny (as long as it is not snarky, sarcastic or mean spirited.)
    • Litanies are awesome. My mom swore by these. She kept a notebook of them. “When you’re crazy, walk the floor if you need to, and pray a litany. Litanies are great when you’re crazy.”
    • Listen to a guided prayerful meditation, like one of mine, or the Daily Disconnect podcast from the Carmelite Friars of Illinois.
    • Here is a body centered, calming recording, an app that helps me sometimes. calm.com
    • Have a cup of calming tea, like chamomile.
    • Have a cup of coffee. Just don’t drink too much coffee.
    • Try a calming essential oil, like lavender, chamomile, or any citrus essential oil. That can be really good. Rub it on your feet, or on the back of your neck. Put it in a diffuser. Splash it around.

In general

Stay safe, stay mentally cool, drive carefully, (and as little as possible if you are overwrought,) stay connected to God all through the day. It helps everybody.

As Fr. Adrian van Kaam said, “Lord, make me a smooth channel for the outflow of your divine will into this world.”

 

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