How Are You?

How are you?  No, really, how are you?  Have you been cranky, out of sorts, easily frustrated, quick to raise your voice?  Are you impatient?  Depressed? Can you think clearly? Are people getting on your nerves? Do you say in your best Marlena Dietrich voice, “I want to be alone?”  Before you make a call to your nearest therapist, ask yourself the following question.  Are you getting enough rest?  I have become increasingly aware that sleep is a very underestimated thing of value in our world today and I believe that’s the cause of many maladies; physical, mental and even spiritual. Is anyone sleeping or even resting anymore?

 

Back in my parents’ day, life seemed simpler.  Dad went to work in the morning and came home in time for dinner with the family.  We ate together and he relaxed for a while out in his garden watering the roses and then went to bed well before 10:00pm.  Mom cleaned and cooked and sewed but she, too, made sure she went to bed at a decent hour to get ready for the next day.  There were no hand held devices to continually check and no computers.  There was only TV and radio and their programming completely ended at 11:00pm.  Only doctors were on call 24/7. What a difference between then and now!

 

We have advanced so much technically and the world has become so much smaller. That’s a good thing, I assume.  But what are we sacrificing in order to be “on” and available all the time?  There are young families with children who have loads of homework, soccer practice, cheerleading, piano lessons and science projects.  Some of us have elderly parents or relatives who are less than able to care for themselves and need our time and TLC. We have our jobs, which demand our attention even away from the office.  Our inboxes never seem to be empty and text messages come at all hours of the day and night.  There are a million tv channels from which to choose with endless news and sports programming.  We haven’t even covered general housekeeping duties, grocery shopping and yard work.  And have we left any time for prayer? 

 

We’re exhausted.  Our society is sick and tired. And we wonder why.  My friends, I think we need to put sleep on our calendars.  I know we can’t turn off a crying baby but can we turn off the tv, the cell phone and our iPads, even for a few hours a day? Our brains, our bodies and our souls need a break from this frenetic lifestyle.  Maybe we can’t get 8 hours of sleep a night but we can take important mental health moments during our busy days.  Will we allow ourselves even 15 minutes of healing silence each day? 

 

Because I have personally experienced many of those “attitudes” described in the first paragraph, I have resolved to spend one day a month, or even just a couple of hours of that day to rest, reflect and recharge.  I need it and God knows, the people around me know I need it.  I want to take time to just be.  I long to smell the flowers, to praise God for the brilliant sun and the glorious sky.  I want to listen to the rain during a storm and let it soothe my spirit.  Honestly, I just want to take a nap sometimes. 

 

What kind of rest brings you peace and healing? And are you taking the time for it?  

The Passage of Time

Many years ago, when I was an elementary student at St. Monica’s in Cincinnati, I did quite a bit of daydreaming, especially during math class.  During those periods I would stare at the big circular clock that would tick ever so slowly. I was convinced something was wrong with that clock because it never seemed to move.  The minutes passed by so painfully slow.  Staring out the massive windows in our classroom, I wished I could be anywhere else but at my little wooden desk.  I would dream that a river would flow near the school and I could jump in and let the cool waters carry me home. Then Sister’s voice coming near me would startle me back to reality.  I would glance at the broken clock and see that the big hand had creaked only two more notches. Do you remember similar times as a child when the school day was interminably long, when you thought summer vacation would never come, when waiting for Christmas was sheer agony?  

 

It seems that when we’re children time is something we always wanted to pass.  We were always looking forward to something better.  We wanted to be older, to wear stockings and lipstick before our time, to be old enough to drive, to envision ourselves as adults and be the boss of somebody.  But as we grew older, time became elusive, its passing something that we could not control.  Before we knew it, all the things we longed for had come and gone and didn’t we just blink our eyes? Sometimes I feel like I am in a Rip Van Winkle story and I have been asleep for twenty years. What happened?  The babies that I lovingly rocked and read to now have children of their own.  Their cries for homework help and playground injuries have faded and I can’t help but wonder if I truly relished every single day I had with them. 

 

There aren’t a lot of perks that come with, shall I say, maturity.  The bones make strange noises, the joints ache, doctor visits become more frequent, wrinkles deepen and checking for root growth is a daily ritual.  However, I have to say that with age comes a marvelous gift and consolation.  It’s the gift of wisdom.  I have finally figured out the beauty and the wonder of the present moment.  No longer will I take time for granted.  Each morning God gives me a brand new day to be the best I can be no matter what I may encounter.

 

While my life is still a very busy one filled with lots of daily activities, I now greet each day with a prayer of thanksgiving.  It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold outside, or raining or snowing or foggy.  This day is precious.  Even if I have a splitting headache or I'm stuck in a horrific traffic jam, I am where I am supposed to be.  Each moment is a gift in and of itself.  If there’s a particular cross I am carrying, I know that God will give me the grace and the strength to endure it.  No more wishing this or that time away.  No more saying, “I can’t wait for this job to be over” or “If only these next few weeks would just fly by so I can go on vacation”.  

 

My friend, time IS flying by. Let’s not continually check the calendar or stare at that clock waiting for something else.  If you fall into bed at night completely spent and the day seemed like a blur, think of just one wonderful thing that happened. Recall it, burn it into your memory so that you didn't miss the joy of that day.  It's all about the present moment and making the best of it.  Your life is a gift from God.  Thank Him for it and embrace it.

The Market

ecently, a trip to my local farmer’s market was desperately needed. My refrigerator held little more than a cupful of milk and some questionable leftovers. I was longing for an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, crusty French bread and some good inexpensive bottles of wine. Grabbing my “green” grocery bags and a warm jacket (it’s freezing in there!) I entered the huge space slowly pushing my cart as to take in the entire experience. And it is definitely an experience you want to savor. 

It was unusual for me to go on a Saturday because the place is jammed, and this Saturday was no exception. Even the wide aisles were too crowded to maneuver a cart, so I parked it nearby and made my way, easing into the myriads of people handpicking green beans one by one to take my turn. It’s an art to do so without offending anyone or getting in someone’s way. Remarking about how fresh things looked began a conversation and I was then welcomed into the fray. Most of the customers were friendly enough and they, too, were taking their time, enjoying the nearly spiritual experience of choosing some of the bounty God had given us. The bright colors of peppers, tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, blueberries and hundreds of other items was a lovely feast for the eyes. I marveled at the strangely shaped vegetables and noticed people of every race and culture carefully selecting foods that I had never seen before and would have no idea how to prepare. But their faces were bright as they must have been thinking about their native homes and the food they had shared with their families. I stuck with my normal fare but longed to know and taste so many different things.

My favorite section is the bread area. Several long aisles are needed to accommodate every kind of bread you could imagine. It’s all made with organic ingredients and before I knew it I had loaded up on dinner rolls, Italian bread, rye bread, whole wheat bread and raspberry croissants. I wondered if I needed all of that but what in the world would I put back on the shelf? Certainly not the croissants and John loves rye bread. I could always freeze it, I thought.

My hour long trip was coming to an end. It would be a shame to hurry this kind of errand. But the best part was yet to come. There must have been at least 25 cashiers ready to check people out and they were all busy. I tried to eye the shortest line and made my way to a young man. You must know that the cashiers, and actually all the workers there, are not Americans. They wear name tags that also have their native language on them. Very rarely do I see “English” although most of the workers can speak a few words. 

The man greeted me with a warm smile and then I noticed something unusual. Although the market was crazy busy and the lines to check out were long, he moved in a deliberate manner, taking extra time to ring up my order. As he bagged my delicious produce he did so with great care. I watched as he practically cradled each piece of fruit, how he gently picked up the bread and carefully placed it in my bag. His movements were loving and caring. Could it be that perhaps food was scarce where he came from and he realized that everything he handled was a gift from God, something to be valued and respected? There were no words exchanged between us except my heartfelt “Thank you” as I left. But all the way home I thought about him. I thought about how I had felt a sense of healing from this man. What was it about him? I know it sounds crazy but those few moments spent with this stranger deeply touched me. And I realized it was his beautiful, gentle nature that struck me to my core. 

Gentleness. What an unusual gift that is, especially in these days! How often do we encounter it, in our homes, in our workplace, in our relationships? I have meditated on that encounter at the market many times. If in those few moments I experienced a sense of peace and healing with this gentle man, do I not feel a responsibility to become more like him so that others may also be healed though an encounter with me? Do I handle all the gifts that God has given me with the spirit of gentleness? It may sound strange but am I able to touch fruit and bread with a sense of wonder? More importantly, do I touch others with that same love and care and gentleness?

No Fear

Fear. What thoughts or images does your mind conjure up when you read or hear that word? I guess it might depend on your age. If you ask a small child, they might respond by saying they are terribly frightened by a sudden crack of thunder in the night. If asking a teenager, fear happens when your parents say, “We need to talk.” An inexperienced young couple may feel terrified when their newborn baby has a high fever. A sense of panic might come to a middle aged person when they hear that their job is being terminated. Fear, worry, anxiety, panic, whatever you want to call it, has crept into our lives at just about every juncture. Something difficult and out of the ordinary happens to us and we immediately feel our heart pounding, the cold sweat on our forehead, and the sick feeling in our stomach. It’s the first emotion to come to the surface when we’re faced with a particular problem or challenge. We imagine the worst. I’ve been there so many times. 

Growing older doesn’t have a ton of benefits, but the infusion of wisdom from experience is something that I wouldn’t trade for a younger body and better knees. (Okay, I might consider it.) Over the years I have learned the absolute futility of fear and worry. I’ve learned that God has a plan and that no matter what happens in my life, He will work it out for good. I’ve understood that not one moment of that worry has changed anything for the better. It sounds terribly simplistic. Maybe because it’s supposed to be simple. Life can be crazy, imposing, and painful in every sense of the word. But God is present at all times and in all things. He is there to hold us up, to comfort us, console us, and strengthen us in the midst of the storm. The image in Scripture of the apostles in the boat comes to mind. The sea is raging and they are being tossed about. They are filled with terror that they will all drown. Suddenly, Jesus appears to them and says, “Do not be afraid. It is I.” 

The Lord has given me many opportunities to practice trust. My family and I have come up against many hardships over the years. I confess I’ve panicked, gotten angry, cried rivers of tears, and even tried to bribe God to change the pain into a bed of roses. It’s taken years but I think I am finally beginning to understand the beauty and the healing power of the Serenity Prayer. 

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. 
Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen. 
Reinhold Niebuhr

If you are facing what seems like an immeasurable challenge in your life right now, pray that prayer. Ask our Heavenly Father to grant you His peace beyond all human understanding. Ask for the grace to trust Him in the midst of your own personal storm. When you recognize that the situation is not under your control, what better option is there than to place it in the ever capable Hands of God? Surrender has a connotation of defeat, but surrender into His Hands will indeed be a victory, a victory over fear.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will direct your paths. 
Proverbs 3, 5-6

Advent Blessings

This time of year most people are focused on buying Christmas presents. We surf the internet, fumble through catalog after catalog, or drive to the mall feverishly searching for that perfect something for a spouse, friend or a special child. We rush to get our cards written and get all the decorations up. It’s definitely a crazy, busy, exhausting time. Will all the gifts be beautifully wrapped, all the cookies and breads baked, and the menus perfected in time for the big day? My question is, what has happened to the season of Advent, the season of expectant, quiet waiting? We are reminded of it when we go to church and see the candles on the Advent wreath. But instead of being soothed by the thought of the coming of the Messiah, there’s sudden panic when the pink candle is lit, as we realize that there are only two weeks left to shop. Is there any way to put an end to this insanity? Are we, as Christians, fighting a losing battle with the retail mania mentality? I think not. There is still time, my friends, to pause, to be still, to embrace the gift of the present moment and become acutely aware of the “reason for the season”. This amazing time of year is filled with the presence of God all around us, if only we are open to receiving the Advent blessings He longs to pour out. The other morning, as I found my way meandering around the Kroger aisles, I received an unexpected one.

I ran into a man from my church who had recently lost the love of his life, his beloved wife of 54 years. He, too, was finding his way amid the other “seniors” who were there to get their weekly discount. I could hardly miss the pain and loneliness in his eyes. I asked how he was doing. He shrugged his shoulders and said he was doing ok. I knew that wasn’t true and proceeded to delve further. He opened up quite easily, I thought, and the stories began. I secretly placed my long grocery list in my pocket and gave him my full attention. As he spoke softly and lovingly of his spouse, I was transported into the depth of his feelings for her. The eyes that initially looked saddened suddenly brightened as he remembered and spoke of the wonderful trips they had taken together. Then they darkened once again as he told me of the suffering she had endured, especially in her last days. He seemed relieved to have someone to listen to these precious memories he was sharing. And I was aware that something that had to do with eternity was happening right there in aisle two. People passing us were like blurry visions but the sweet man’s face had a defined clarity about it and even a holiness. I knew this was one of those God appointments, and nothing else I had to do that day mattered. This was what it’s all about, I thought. It's funny, isn't it, how we think we are ministering to someone and then God changes it all around and you're the one who is being ministered to. I'm remembering the line from the prayer of St. Francis that says, "For it is in giving that we receive." This encounter, this unforgettable time of sharing, this peace I had in my heart, was a true Advent blessing, a true preparation for the blessed event we are soon to celebrate. Have you received your Advent blessing yet? Keep your eyes and ears open. It can happen in a most unusual place.

Make Me A Channel of Your Peace

Yesterday I had to run an errand after work to pick up my husband’s suits from the dry cleaner’s. There were several cars in the drive-through line and I was patiently waiting my turn. When one of the cars finished picking up their cleaning, everyone pulled up except for the man in the truck ahead of me. Still I waited behind him. He caught my eye in his rear view mirror and motioned for me to go ahead of him, which I did. I figured he must be waiting for someone in the small parking area. Before I knew it, he had gotten out of his truck and was standing at my window ranting at how I cut in front of him. I was incredulous at his anger at me since he clearly had told me to go around him. Apparently I misunderstood. He continued to scold me and yelled that he thought I was leaving the area and that he was motioning me to do just that. My profuse apologies didn’t deter him and he continued to blast me for my error. Needless to say, I was totally rattled and angered by his behavior. I even forgot to drop off my additional cleaning. All the way home I wondered what had caused this man to be so out of control. 

Later that night, a friend relayed an incident that happened to her recently. As she was driving, someone behind her car road on her tail for quite some time. She obviously wasn’t going fast enough for him. He finally swung around her and gave her a very rude gesture as he passed. Have you ever been a victim of someone’s anger? It’s very disconcerting and very disheartening. What would cause someone to become so upset that they would lash out for something so small and insignificant? 

People seem to be pressed in for many reasons. Maybe they’ve lost their job or their home. Maybe a loved one has been diagnosed with a disease. Maybe a spouse has been unfaithful. The reasons for angry outbursts are infinite. Our natural inclination is to get angry ourselves or to defend our position or to be rude right back. The truth is we never know what is going on in a person’s life when we encounter them. Which means, we should never judge them or be unkind. And that, my friends, is the challenge. 

We are called to be holy, to be instruments of God’s love and healing in a very broken world. The problem is that we, too, are broken. So realistically, how do we respond in a Christ-like manner in difficult situations? The answer is pretty simple. It’s simple, yet very difficult in these times. The answer is a vibrant prayer life. Daily encounters with our God, whose name is Love, will soften the hardest of hearts, will smooth over rough edges, will soothe weary souls. Only He can heal our woundedness and allow us to respond with compassion to our angry neighbor. Those daily encounters are only the beginning. God will then give us ample opportunities to “practice” using what He so generously gives to us during those times of prayer. These practice sessions last a lifetime so we shouldn't expect immediate results. But little by little we'll hopefully begin to see subtle changes in our responses. Maybe we'll be able to let go of things a little easier. We'll be able to remember to take a deep breath and count to ten. We'll learn to walk away saying a Hail Mary for the antagonizer. 

Jesus said, in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” 

Let's receive, then, this gift of peace that God longs to pour out on us. Let us allow it to cover us and flow out of from us. There may be a lot of angry people out there, but we can, in our own little way, become as St. Francis said, a channel of God’s peace. Maybe next time I'll handle things a little better. I can be sure that God will give me another opportunity. He always does. 

The Garden

Recently I had an opportunity to “get away from it all”. I always love getting away to the beach and escaping for a little while from my daily duties. I was so looking forward to being still and drinking in the silence. I needed to rest, to have time to reflect, and to journal. It had been a really busy school year for me and the summer was going to be chock full of activities, as well. So a time for quiet reflection really appealed to me and was desperately needed. However, my “retreat” was not what I expected it to be. The majority of my time was spent trying to quiet my mind. I found myself to be terribly distracted and unable to let go of the things of this world. I never thought that calming my thoughts and finding some peace would be so challenging. How was I ever going to hear the voice of God amid the noise inside my head? It took a good two days to decompress but the process was only partial. I left my place of solace slightly frustrated, knowing that I needed more time but time had run out. What had happened? Why was that longed-for tranquility unable to easily enter into my spirit? Have you ever experienced this?

I wonder if the world and all of its lures and attachments have become so deeply entrenched in our lives that we are not even aware of it anymore. The noise of television, radio, 24 hour cable news, ipods in our ears and frequent cell phone conversations can easily drown out the whisper of God. Our schedules are jam-packed with each day’s activities. We drive around trying to avoid traffic jams, taking the fast lane so we’re not late for all those appointments. Clients are demanding, the children are late for ball practice, dinner is a fast food frenzy and well, you name whatever is driving you crazy today. This, I am sure, is not the abundant life that we are meant to be living. So, is the world in direct competition with God? Sometimes I wonder who’s winning that battle in my life. Actually, “battle” is the perfect word. I feel like I have to fight for my time with the Lord. If I do not have my prayer time with Him I feel confused, irritable, angry, and generally unhappy. Those things are in direct contrast with the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

In order for us to be able to bear “fruit” in our lives, our garden must be tended to. The soil of our hearts must be patiently tilled, and the rocks and hard clumps need to be removed. So that we can produce a healthy crop, much time, hard work, and care in the spiritual field must be put forth. Otherwise, the weeds will take over and we are left with nothing.

I think a good interior exercise might be to look deep within ourselves and see which fruit tree is producing a less than bountiful harvest. Then that is where we need to put our best effort. Is my patient tree sparse? (It usually is) I must then look for the opportunity to work in that area of the garden. I know that God will always provide lots of opportunities.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, my soul is longing for more of You. Help me to be aware of what areas in my life are crowding You out. Remind me to turn off the radio in the car, to take one night off from TV, to enjoy dinner at the table with my family, to take a few minutes to read something spiritual and encouraging. The world and all it’s noise and busyness will always be there. But I value and cherish those quiet moments when I can sense Your presence. I don’t need to go away to the beach. I simply need to spend more time in my garden.

The Mountaintop

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the International Magnificat Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Magnificat is a ministry to Catholic women based on the friendship between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her cousin, Elizabeth. The conference is held every other year and somehow I always manage a way to go. It’s one of those weekends where you are enveloped in grace, joy, peace, and all kinds of spiritual nourishment. Embracing dear friends who live on the other side of the country and even across the ocean, singing and praising God with hundreds of women, listening to encouraging and challenging homilies and spirit-filled speakers is such a wonderful and uplifting experience. It is a time of renewal and refreshment for wearied souls, and each time I attend this event, I return home enriched and strengthened in my faith.

It was rather amazing that the Gospel reading for the Sunday closing liturgy was the Transfiguration. We are familiar with the story of how Jesus took his friends, Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain and was transfigured before their very eyes. The scripture says that “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as light.” Moses and Elijah also appeared to them and conversed with the Lord. Then, it says, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them and out of the cloud they heard a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” What an amazing and magnificent experience they had with such a vision! They didn’t want to leave. And I think most of people at the conference felt the same way about the weekend.

We sometimes hear people talk about a mountaintop experience. It’s when you are completely surrounded by God’s peace and love, or enjoying a much needed vacation, or participating in an activity that brings you great joy. We never want that time to come to an end. We want to stay there forever and never go back down into the valley. Have you ever felt that way before? I know I have. The “valley” may represent the monotony of every day life, the piles of dirty laundry and the drudgery of other menial tasks, driving in rush hour traffic, listening to complaints from co-workers, picking up after the kids for the millionth time, etc. Well, my idea of that changed after listening to the homily given by the bishop of New Orleans, the Most Rev. Gregory M. Aymond. He said, “The mountaintop is not a place. It’s about relationship.” I knew those were profound words so I scribbled them down and have been thinking about them since. 

Could it possibly be that we can be transformed each and every day, no matter where we are or what is going on at the time, whether it be cleaning the kitchen, wiping runny noses, paying bills, or caring for an elderly loved one? Clearly, then, our own mountaintop is about what our relationship is with Jesus Christ. If we are closely united to Him, through prayer, the sacraments, scripture reading, and sacrifice, then each moment, each breath we take is holy. It is He who makes all things new, who lifts us from our burdens and gives us grace without measure to be His body on the earth. Our daily duty is a gift, even though it may not be wrapped up in a tidy and pretty bow. Sometimes it is wrapped in the shape of a cross. But what glory comes from the cross! 

So here we are, in the middle of Lent, celebrating Christ’s Transfiguration and our very own transformation into His image. As we place ourselves in His presence each day, listening to the Voice of God’s beloved Son, may our faces shine like the sun and may His light in us dispel the darkness of the valley.