Thursday, July 31, 2014

This Summer Blows

Driving down South last week, I gasped through temperatures in the mid-90’s.  Returning North this week, we’ve seen temps down into the mid- 40’s, and I’m digging out my sweatshirts.
Looking out into the garden yesterday, my tomato plants have tomatoes that are so dark green --- not anywhere near turning red --- that I think the plants think it’s early June, with lots of summer days left.  Meanwhile in the center of the yard, the big old maple tree has leaves that are turning colors; it thinks it’s mid October, and so I might find myself raking leaves pretty soon.
But it was this sign which I saw on the way home from Night Prayers tonight which really “summer”-izes my thoughts:

And so when I saw the temp was 81 outside, I threw the Beachboys on the CD player, turned up the volume, and stopped to buy a hot fudge sundae for dinner. 
Hey!  Let's pretend today’s Friday, then I couldn’t eat any meat anyway, right?!  (but let's not tell my personal trainer about this little stop). 

How To Begin A Daily Journal

Thoughts came to me this morning about my spiritual progress:  Am I making any?  How would I know?  I wrote recently about The Prayer of St. Francis, which I pray daily.  It begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.”  I pray it, but am I?  What am I doing?  What could I be doing?  What does God expect of me?  Am I really growing in holiness, or just passing the days, in the same unhappy rut?
I recalled this morning how many saints have strongly recommended we end each day with an examination of conscience, asking ourselves:  how good did I do today?  Did I sin?  Did I fail God?  What do I remember as being important to me today?  I’ve read how Pope John Paul II always ended his day with an examination of conscience --- and perhaps as a result went to confession much more frequently than I do --- and he was a pope!  And, he also was a man I deeply admire.
I’m reading a book right now titled:  Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry.  It is just short stories describing the hundreds of documented miracles attributed to Padre Pio, a humble Italian monk.  He could discern spirits like no one I’ve ever heard of before --- he often threw men out of the confessional: “You’re not sorry!  You don’t want to change your life!”  And afterwards they realized they agreed with his assessments.
How much do I want to change my life?  Does it take a mystic to tell me?
I know people who are not satisfied with their lives.  Read my words on the side of this blog; that was my feeling at one point in my life.  Many people want to make better use of their lives.  The culture says get more money and more things and more sex and you will be happy.  Really?  I had those things; they didn’t make me happy, not happy inside the real me.  I had things that gave me physical pleasures, but the emotional joy of knowing that I --- me, the real me that no one sees, but me --- I did not have the joy of knowing that my life made a difference.  And I had a yearning for that feeling.
Many saints, including St. Ignatius of Loyola whose feast day is today, recommended keeping a daily journal, to keep track of our spiritual progress.  As I wrote in a recent book review, he devised a formal set of rules to help a person discern spirits affecting his life:  Is this of God, or not?  Is God telling me something, His will, or is what I feel or desire merely my will, what I want?  How can I tell?  With Ignatius’ rules, and daily journaling of your thoughts, he showed how you can find answers to those questions, and make REAL spiritual progress --- and find joy in your existence.
Today I thought on those things, and I’ve decided it might be good for me to start a journal.  But what shall I write about: A nightly examination of conscience?  I’ve tried to do that and failed; my best thinking is not done at day’s end.  Often, then is when I do little thinking --- that’s why some older people are said to have Sundowner’s Syndrome, when their dementia worsens as their mind tires at the end of the day.  No, I think morning is my time to think deeply, critically.  Perhaps I shall decide to rise 10 – 15 minutes earlier each day, say a prayer, and then write some short thoughts on my prior day.  That might work for me.  Or perhaps, since I visit a chapel most days for Evening Prayer, maybe I’ll add 10 minutes then.  Despite being tired, God’s presence DOES often speak to my soul; maybe He’ll help me understand.  Maybe I’ll see which time seems best for me, after trying both for a while.
A task for me today will be to find a journal.  But I think once I begin, I will need to have a rigid order to my thought process, a true examination of conscience, with questions to be answered, like a lawyer might ask:  just the facts, not ramblings.  (I do enough rambling on this blog!!)
Thinking on it this morning, it seems it might be good for me if my soon-to-be daily journal has two areas of focus:  God Opportunities, and My Opportunities --- His will (perhaps?), and my will.  Under each heading I’ll just list the opportunity I had during the past day, and a short note of how I answered that opportunity – a scorecard on how well I’m living my life, day by day.  Like perhaps I might write this God Opportunity:  Pray for Mary’s mom (which Mary had asked me to do) – failed (I forgot).  Or:  Visit a nursing home (the mom of a friend) – passed (I visited her for a while, and made her smile).  And under My Opportunities I might write:  Exercise – Passed!! (Okay, that was easy today, I had an appointment with my personal trainer).  Or perhaps:  Pay the bills --  Failed (I don’t know why I procrastinate, I just do).  And under My Opportunities I might also list:  Read a book --- failed (This I often fail, because I DO read books every day, often wasting valuable time, to give myself personal pleasure.)  Under God Opportunities I will list things which may have been His will, and how well I answered the opportunity.  Under My Opportunities, I will list things which may have been MY WILL ---- done without consideration of God’s will, often the selfish things I did for earthly reasons, the things I should be open to doing LESS of, not more.
I think in writing, I’ll try to focus on the God Opportunities, because I know I often miss them, in part because I don’t look for them.  If you have never sought to see God’s Opportunities in YOUR life, should you try to start a journal like this you may be unable to think of any in a given day.  I’d counsel you to have patience.  Start this journaling exercise with a prayer, and I’m sure that gradually God will show you the opportunities you had during the day, to love His children, which is a huge portion of His will for you.  And, perhaps after a while you might even notice those opportunities as they occur --- and do something about them!  The point of this journal is to make me (and you, if you try this), to know God’s will in our lives, to try to change our lives to be more aligned with that will, and in doing so find more joy in our lives.  It’s a scorecard, and hopefully over time we’ll notice we’re hitting more home runs.
I think I may enjoy doing this daily review, once I’m firmly in the habit.  And maybe I’ll remember the questions more readily, and ask them of myself more bluntly:  Do I want to do more of God’s Opportunities, or more of My Opportunities.  What do I want:  more of GOd, or just MOre, period.   I’ve often had “more” in my life, and in the end I realized how “less” it really was. 
I want more God. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

You Can Always Make A Difference

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  Every life is important. 
You can make a difference in this world with YOUR important life --- no matter who you are, no matter what your resources, no matter where you are.  God has a calling for you, if you’ll just stop talking and listen to Him.
And there’s another thing I’ve said before: WHEN we make a difference with our life, with our actions or with our words, probably about 90% of the time we will never realize the good we have done.  We sow seeds as we walk through our life; the results of our actions are behind us, and we likely won’t see them.  So stop saying: “God isn’t listening to my prayers; nothing is happening.”  Or: “It doesn’t seem like what I do matters.”  It DOES matter, but God isn’t going to stop doing the good He does --- with your help, sure --- to explain to you the results of your life’s work, to stroke your ego that whines: “But I need to know that I’m important.” 
You are important.  He died for you!  What more do you want Him to do?
But still, I understand that we all, at some times, need to hear His consolations, the little voice that says to us:  “Yes, my child, you did make a difference.”  We all need a pat on the back, sometimes.   
And so, as an instrument of His peace, that is what I set out to do last week, as I drove nearly 1,900 miles to tell some people who I had never before met: “Yes, your life made a difference in mine.  By your words, thoughts, and prayers, you were a true God-send to me.  And I wanted to tell you personally, and thank you, and tell you how important you are.”  And so I did.
I started with an all-day drive from Michigan to the outskirts of Nashville, to Franklin Tennessee.  That first night, the people at the LaQuinta Inn where I stayed gave me directions to nearby St. Phillip’s Church, where I went to say my night prayers --- and was given a tour and history of the church by the locals, and invited to 7AM mass the next morning.  The small old church there, which connects to the very large new church there, provided me a wonderful start to my visit, an initial meeting with caring people, who I was destined to meet throughout my stay.
After morning mass, I headed into Nashville to see Julie Cragon, (Hand Me Down Heaven) at St. Mary’s Catholic Bookstore, which has been in her family for over 30 years.  What a beautiful 3-story building, and what a beautiful woman Julie is.  I knew from her encouraging comments on my blog that she was a caring woman, but St. Mary’s just glows with Julie’s love of God.  She introduced me to her daughter, Sarah, who is pictured with the two of us outside the store.  The store itself displays books (many of which I’ve reviewed here --- Julie has good taste), statues, priestly garb and liturgical needs, and beautiful pictures in enticing arrays --- and I was surprised to see prominently displayed a book she had written herself!  But, as Julie explained to me, that was just one of three she has written (I am so humbled, especially in that I now notice how her books are so prominently displayed on her blog site!  Duh --- he can read, but he can’t see).   And then she gave me copies of all three to read --- so more reviews will be forthcoming here!
When I mentioned that I was from the Ann Arbor Michigan area, the conversation quickly got around to the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist based there.  Showing off my smarts, I said: “Yes, they are amazing.  Started only 15 years ago, four sisters were brought from New York by Tom Monaghan, and the order has grown to well over one hundred, teaching in a number of states.”  Then, showing off my stupidity, Julie said: “Oh New York was just a stop; they originally came from the Dominican order here in Nashville.  Oh, I remember Mother Assumpta and Sister Mary Joseph and ….”  And the stories went on and on.  I support and know some things about the sisters here, but Julie KNOWS the sisters here.  And then one of the Dominicans sisters from Nashville entered the store, and more stories were told.
What a wonderful place, and wonderful people, and I told them --- as if they couldn’t so readily see and believe --- that they are making a great difference with their lives, and they made a great difference in my life and that of my mom’s.  And then we hugged, as old friends might.  And, although we had only met this once, we truly were friends.
But I had to too quickly move on.  I had promised Maryellen Jones (Grandma’s Musings) that I would visit her, and her husband Clinton, for lunch at the Spring Hills assisted living facility where they resided. 
Maryellen was a much more beautiful person than the pictures on her blog could display.  Physically and spiritually, she radiated a confidence that so many of us lack.  She knew that where she was, and at this stage of her life, this is where God meant her to be, and it was here that she was making a difference.  I told her, and her daughter Kathy that at the Caregiver’s Support Group I coordinate I often share some of the notes Maryellen sent me, describing how she lovingly cares for Clinton, who has Alzheimer’s.  The descriptions of how she patiently communicates with him, overcoming the limitations of his illness, are an inspiration to others caring for their loved ones.  I gave Kathy a laminated copy of what I considered one of the best advice pieces Maryellen had written, so Kathy could see the daily love which her mother gives her father, and how much her mother’s actions remain important to others in this world.
Kathy didn’t stay for lunch with us --- which was her loss:  the Polish sausage and sauerkraut were outstanding!  The staff had set up place settings for Maryellen, Clinton and I in the private dining room, so we could talk undisturbed, but after a glance around, Maryellen would have none of that.  One of the other women from the facility was sitting at a table alone, and Maryellen said: “No, we’ll sit at the table with her, to keep her company” --- and she proceeded to pick up the place settings and move them to the table in the main dining room.  Maryellen, at 86, just seems to fit so naturally in her role of being God’s loving presence to her neighbor.  I am so glad I took the time to come and meet her.  And it really was a pleasure meeting Clinton, also.  He has such a wonderful smile, and a peaceful and calm demeanor, even when he sometimes loses his train of thought.  I never saw him express frustration at his limitations, which I’ve often seen in others with Alzheimer’s.  I very much enjoyed my time with Maryellen and Clinton and their daughter and hearing stories of their life, but with them also, I too soon had to bid adeau.  I had promised to be in Chattanooga for dinner!
And so I took the 2-hour drive south to meet Barb (Pewspective) and Steve Golder, in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I screwed up in making hotel reservations this time, and I had to call Barb to say: “I’m here, but: Help!”  And she quickly came and helped me find a nice hotel near their home.  After I registered there she said: “Get in; I’ll drive us to the house to pick up Steve, and then we can go out to dinner. ….. and if you’re going to get carsick, roll down the window!”
Lookout Mountain, where they live, IS a mountain, and Barb drove the road which wound this way and that (and I think it may have done a loop-di-loop or two also) at a furious pace, as I stared at the floor of the car.  Yikes!  She said driving the winding roads, once you got used to them, was no problem, “except on some of the foggy or rainy nights, when it is a two-reflector drive,” referring to the fact that all you could see were (perhaps) two of the reflectors which dot the centerline of the road ---- and which were the only things that kept you from driving off the cliff, should you lose sight of them.  (I didn’t talk about it at the time, but I wondered if I should suggest we not have drinks with dinner later that night --- or perhaps have a designated driver.)
I met Steve, who is a wonderful man, and a perfect match for Barb.  (He’s got a nice beard, and participates in the local civil war re-enactments each year ---- and brews and bottles beer together with the local priest.)  Their large 5-bedroom home overlooks Chattanooga from about 2,000 feet up, and from their large deck you can see the city lights far below.  You also can see the people who jump off the cliff, from the hand gliding launch pad which is just down the road.  (No, I didn’t volunteer to try that.)   Most every room in their house has walls covered with bookcases.  I felt right at home!  And I swear, they could have put up a sign outside and given Julie’s bookstore competition with all the paintings and statues and books they had everywhere.  I loved it!    
Having dinner with them was like eating with a sister and brother; we had so much to talk about at the restaurant where everyone knew them.  We stopped on the way back to photograph the beautiful sunset over the mountains.  The next morning, Barb made sausage and biscuits for us --- and the four evangelists staying at their house.  They were in town from Alabama to teach the summer Vacation Bible School kids at the cathedral downtown.  They were four very nice young people, and one is studying in the seminary to become a priest.  After they left, Barb took me for a quick stop at the church down the road, where I said morning prayers, as she did ----- while she also changed out all the burned out glass vigil candles for new ones.  Then we toured some civil war parks (there were cannons everywhere), the neighborhoods of Chattanooga, and then we went to the cathedral, where we went to mid-day mass, and again saw the evangelists, along with their young charges --- and Barb did the mass readings.  She seemed to know everyone in the town!
But then this had to end also, and we hugged and talked about when and how we will get together again, soon.  Family can’t stay apart, and I felt as if I had found a new extension of my family. 
I’m not sure I ever got around to telling Barb and Steve how important I thought their lives were --- they were too busy helping others to accept any thanks.  But I did get a hug from both before I left.
On this quick trip through Tennessee, I met three families, in three very different stages of life and responsibilities.  And while I went there to tell them how much a difference they had made in my life, to encourage them in living their lives well, I found they all were making a great difference to many more people than just me, and I was awestruck by the example I saw in each of them. 
No matter what, no matter where, no matter when: we all can find many ways to love our neighbor, and make a difference in this world.  I saw it in action in these towns of Tennessee, and I shall never forget these wonderful people.
But then I had to move on, again, to Steubenville, Ohio this time, and the Defending The Faith Conference at Franciscan University ---- but that will have to be another post.
Oh, and if I haven’t told you lately, you also are making a difference with your life, a great difference ---- whether you realize it or not.  And I wish I could give you a hug also. 
Thank you for being you.                       

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How Can I Love My Neighbor?

The priest at Monday’s mass said there are two crosses we all must carry before we can love our neighbor.  The first is our self, and the second is our neighbor.
He told a story of his youth to describe the first:  “My sister lost her favorite pen, and she was crying.  I loved my sister and so I helped her look everywhere for her pen, but I couldn’t find it.  So I hugged her and said: Please don’t cry.  We’ll find it soon.  And a little while later, she stopped crying; she had found her pen and was happy again, and so was I.”
“Then I noticed something:  I had lost MY pen.  And when I looked at my sister’s pen it had some markings on it just like my pen did.  That’s my pen, I said.  And then she started crying again.  So I said:  Please don’t cry.  I won’t take it from you.  You can keep it.  That’s okay.  And she looked at me, and stopped crying.  And that made me happy.”
“But that’s my pen, I said.  And the crying started all over again.”
“Even as a kid I couldn’t overcome my desire to get in the last word and to prove myself right.  But if we are to love our neighbor, that’s the first cross we must carry, the cross of our desires.  In order to love, we must put our happiness second, to theirs.”
“And the second cross we must carry is similar to the first.  I loved my sister, and over the years I’ve gotten better at putting her happiness before mine.  But no man is alone on an island, except perhaps Tom Hanks in that movie.  There are other people who we all meet who are not so lovable.  Mother Teresa found them covered with maggots dying in the street.  We find them in our stupid co-workers, our crazy neighbor and his dog who leaves his stuff everywhere, and in all those texting drivers and loud people in the grocery store.  Who can put up with those people, much less love them?”
“We can --- and should.  We are called to put our feelings about them second, to bear this cross of the miserable people they truly are, and to love them anyway.  There really aren’t that many truly lovable people in the world --- maybe not even that person in the mirror --- but Jesus said to imitate me, and love them anyway, to pick up our crosses, and to love them.
                        - - - - - - - - - -
Oh God.  Oh … God!  Why can’t I just die?
I was visiting a friend’s mother in the rehab clinic over the weekend.  In the bed next to her, a woman was drifting in and out of a restless sleep, and moaning in pain.  Ooooo … It hurts. …. If I could just have a sip of water …  And when I heard those words, I went over to her side, took her cup and put the straw to her lips.  Thank you, she said.  Her eyes opened slightly, and she looked at me.  I’m Tom, I said.  I’m Ann, she murmured.  I’m sorry to be a bother.  Old ladies like me just need to die.  I smiled at her and said:  Pretty ladies are never a bother for me.  And for a brief moment, she smiled, and then went back to sleep.
And in the days I’ve been going there, her pain and her grief have continued. 
And no one visits her.
                        - - - - - - - - - -
The deacon leading the Communion Service this morning spoke after the Gospel.  “Please pray for my brother-in-law,” he said.  “He died last night of a sudden heart attack.  It was a blessed death, though, because he was a priest and he died at a gathering of priests and medical people, and so he received the Last Rites, and comfort in his last moments.” 
But then the deacon continued: But he and I didn’t get along.  I’m very orthodox and he was very liberal, and we often disagreed on the importance of Church teachings.
And I thought:  The man has died.  You asked us to pray for him, and still you had to get in the last word about your feelings.  And I wished this deacon had heard the priest’s words yesterday, about bearing our crosses, and loving anyway. 
But,  ….sometimes we can’t conceive that some things are part of God’s plan, and perhaps I needed to hear the deacon’s words, to act as a reminder to me:  Loving our neighbor isn’t an easy thing --- for anyone.
As I left the Communion service, I was stopped by a woman entering the chapel:  Please pray for me, she said.  Things are very dark, and I don’t know what to do.  I’ve lost my job because of my depression.  My husband had lost his job because he’s going blind.  And now I have to sell our house and find somewhere else to go.  I hugged her and asked:  What help are you getting?  Do you have children?  She replied:  They think we should work this out ourselves.
I promised to pray for her, and asked her to email me details.  Perhaps there is more I might do, even if just to listen --- to love in some way, someone who so needs love.
A short while later, at the men’s prayer breakfast, the coordinator asked:  “Are there any prayer intentions today?”  When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned the plight of the two women, and I asked that we pray for those who feel alone and unloved.  “Everyone needs to feel loved,” I said.  The men agreed, and so we prayed for all of our various intentions.  But as we were praying, the prayer card from my mother’s funeral appeared in front of my eyes, and I recalled the earlier words of the priest on how love is given.
With the men, I prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, but then I saw the prayer on my mother’s card.  How I wished we could have prayed THAT prayer.  It was not a prayer calling for the Father, or Mary, or the Trinity to love the people we prayed for.  It was a harder prayer, like the priest said, a prayer that we could bear our crosses, so that then WE could love them.

The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred let me show love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grand that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.