How good to be “marooned on unsure ground”

The seismic shifts that are underway in every aspect of our culture these days are nothing compared to the seismic shifts God is calling me to personally, perhaps calling all of us too if there is to be any resolution that will promote the human advancement of us all.

We can no longer face anything the same way we did five months ago. It seems like such a breath of time, and yet a centuries-wide chasm has been broken open by the processes and changes that are fracturing and reshaping the world as we have known it.

We collectively stare into a widening canyon of uncertainty as life spins into unexpected directions. Uncertainty: where will all this end? What will happen to me? Will I be able to keep what I have? Am I somehow also responsible for this? Am I all that God has put me on this earth to be and to do?

Yet a window of possibility is emerging…
The possibility that we might feel with courage…
That we might decide with love…
That we might listen with neutrality…
That we might be willing to lose something that another might have,
to die that another might live…

As John O’Donohue wrote in To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings:

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.

You have been forced to enter empty time,
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

The isolation imposed on us by the life-threatening spread of COVID-19 has been a world-wide empty time in which we touched the raw needs of our heart and soul, where we reached out for the humanity of others, where we realized that we are no different from anyone else sheltered behind doors, afraid.

We had to give up the “desires that drove us” but a few weeks before. The world changed in the twinkling of an eye as we closed the doors behind us, each facing our vulnerability…our death.

Forsaking the “race of days,” we pondered the end of our days.

John O’Donohue continues:

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like tireless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

And then as George Floyd’s days were ended and the unheard cry of our black brothers and sisters wailed through the world’s streets in a demand for justice, our front doors burst open, as we ran out into the streets, literally or figuratively. We have been pulled too quickly back into traveling “too fast over false ground,” our soul snatched from us as we live now too much on the level of senses, appearance, rage, justification, confusion, guilt and fear.

As we, during the first weeks of the pandemic, touched in a new way our own humanity and that of those we loved, and perhaps that of everyone else to whom we felt bound by bonds of sympathy, we are called now to touch the humanity of those we may not know, people for whom—for one reason or another—we may feel no compassion. To truly understand what frightens or enrages us, we need to understand, deeply understand, the humanity of the other, what matters to them, their history, their frame of reference, their desires and fears. We need to put them first. We need to let ourselves become the student.

We need the courage to care. To be kind. To assume there is more context to the particulars we see in any given situation. To have the humility to study, read, research, plead with God for enlightenment and truth and charity.

To do all this, we need to close once again the doors of our passion. Whether we walk in protest or otherwise engage in the transformation into which we all are swept, we need to dig more deeply into our souls for the sake of honoring the humanity of the “other,” whoever for us the “other” might be.

As I look into my own heart, I want to sincerely try
to carefully separate
fear from the courage to undergo the truth,
anger from the willingness to engage in constructing a civilization in which are blessed,
resentment from the humility that allows another a new beginning,
willfulness from the power of kindly compassion and goodness that builds up the other even at the cost of myself.

As John O’Donohue prays in blessing:

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

I wish this for all of you.

Image: Image by Frauke Riether from Pixabay

I want conversion, not a “new normal”

The year 2020 has been a year so far that has called me to c-o-n-v-e-r-s-i-o-n. COVID-19 which has swept across the world, months of isolation, loss of so much ministry that had been built up by so many of my sisters, the breaking open of the tragic wound of racism and the violence that has filled our streets….

Nothing is as we expected.
Everything has been a surprise.
This moment alone is the entry into the still-point of presence
God’s presence
the present
the heart-presence where wisdom lies.

When I think of conversion, my soul flies first to the conversion of my father, St Paul.

On his way to Damascus to carry out what he thought was what was supposed to happen…

Something unexpected happened
Everything was a surprise
The moment was the entry point where Jesus could slip into his heart

I had my plans for 2020. We all did. Right now I can’t even remember what they were. Can you?

They seem unimportant. Trivial. Like I spent alot of time about alot of things that…well…from today’s vantage point don’t seem all that important.

Either I learned I could live without what once I felt entitled to have or do.

I discovered how quickly the conversation and plans could change.

I’ve discovered after many long mornings with extra time to pray and reflect, that I want something different. That I don’t like “normal” anymore.

I took the isolated weeks to rediscover solitude, to recover from my fragmented craziness, and to be razor sharp about what I believe is God’s call for me going forward.

The onion skin of failures, hurts, memories, beliefs, desires have started to fall away and the beauty of the inward Fountain that leaps up to eternal life is nourishing once again my soul.

Paul had his plans also. He was a good man, well-intentioned. Thought he was doing the right thing. Really we all are well-intentioned, but the music of our life is a bit out of harmony, distorted, perhaps flat or out of tune. When Jesus bursts into our life, we are surprised. Like Paul we may feel blinded by what we discover, or hear, or sense. These threshold moments allow us to step into our souls overcome by the vision of the Almighty bending low to bring us gently into his embrace, his plan, his tender forgiveness that wipes away the normal and creates something we could never have imagined.

Paul could never have planned out his life. The journeys, the struggles, the visions, the theology, the imprisonments, his final witness to Jesus. I remember staying a whole afternoon at Tre Fontaine outside Rome where I prayed before the pillar that is said to be where Paul was beheaded. Paul slipped into my heart that afternoon. His spirit, his courage, the mystic orchestra of his entire being captured by the love of Jesus. Yes. Only Jesus could surprise Paul with a change of life so complete, so beautiful, so graced…a life that would bless every Christian till the end of time.

Another person I think of when I consider conversion is St Augustine. While Paul speaks of blindness until the moment of his baptism, Augustine tells us of being overcome with light in the innermost places of his being. I have experienced, as I am sure have you, this blindness, when we are for a time knocked off course by something, until we find ourselves moved into a life that can only be of God’s design.

But I’ve also experienced this overwhelming light, when I knew that within me is the One who is above me, who made me, who loves me.

Augustine describes it this way in his Confessions:

Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the inmost depth of my soul. I was able to do so because you were my helper. On entering into myself I saw, as it were with the eye of the soul, what was beyond the eye of the soul, beyond my spirit: your immutable light. … This light was above me because it has made me; I was below it because I was created by it. He who has come to know the truth knows this light.

O Eternal truth, true love and beloved eternity. You are my God. To you do I sigh day and night. When I first came to know you, you drew me to yourself so that I might see that there were things for me to see, but that I myself was not yet ready to see them. Meanwhile you overcame the weakness of my vision, sending forth most strongly the beams of your light, and I trembled at once with love and dread. I learned that I was in a region unlike yours and far distant from you, and I thought I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men; grow then, and you will feed on me. Nor will you change me into yourself like bodily food, but you will be changed into me.”

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace

Both St Paul and St Augustine knew that their experience of God was not meant for them alone. Neither is our conversion meant for us alone. They and we are “positioned” on the world stage to play our part in the drama of God’s heart and each person’s eternal salvation. Here are some quotes I’m reflecting on in these deeply disturbing times, the words of these great converts that strengthen me as witness to Christ, as they were before me, in world’s turbulence as it plays out today.

Be strong in the Lord

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” – Ephesians 6:10-18

We are the times

Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times. ST. AUGUSTINE, Sermons

Don’t hold yourselves cheap

Don’t hold yourselves cheap, seeing that the creator of all things and of you estimates your value so high, so dear, that he pours out for you every day the most precious blood of his only-begotten Son. ST. AUGUSTINE, Sermons

Bear you share of suffering for the Gospel

“Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but take your share of suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago,and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do.” – 2 Timothy 1:8-11

Kingdoms without justice

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?” ― Augustine of Hippo, City of God

Cherish towards evil men a perfect hatred

“He who lives according to God ought to cherish towards evil men a perfect hatred, so that he shall neither hate the man because of his vice nor love the vice because of the man.” ― Augustine of Hippo, City of God

A new creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17

No, I do not want it to remain the way it was before. No, I don’t want a new normal.
I want the new creation
I want justice and peace
I want to fight against the powers of darkness at work in the world
I want to tell everyone how dearly they are loved
I want to be an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And Elijah came to the mountain of God

The quiet days of lockdown from the COVID-19 virus came to an abrupt end as the country watched in disbelief the last almost nine minutes of a person’s life being cruelly taken from him…on camera.

A person.

Created by God.

Loved by God.

Embraced by God.

A person with a name: Mr. George Floyd.

And the country erupted into 14 nights of peaceful protest, greedy looting, and violence.

As I watched I felt horror, helplessness, anger, abandonment, fear….

“And Elijah came to the mountain of God called Horeb.” These words jolted me as I read them one morning this week, trying to find some footholds of meaning in the midst of the cacophony.

“Elijah came to the mountain of God.”

Elijah didn’t turn to the refrigerator, or to the internet, or the news, or television, or pick up a good book (or whatever the equivalent would have been in his day).

He went to the mountain of God called Horeb.

I sat with this word from God spoken so softly into my shattered heart and allowed him to draw me to the mountain of God.

Elijah, you remember the story, was at this point on his own roller coaster of emotions. He had just come off his famous contest with the prophets of Baal. While the prophets of Baal had called out to their god to send down fire to consume the bull, nothing happened. Elijah taunted the 450 prophets of Baal, saying: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost or wandering or traveling somewhere…or maybe he is asleep!” No fire. No response.

Elijah summoned the people to him and called down fire upon his water-soaked altar, showing that the LORD was the one, true God.

Then Elijah commanded God’s people to seize all 450 prophets of Baal, dragged them to the Kishon Brook and killed them.

So convincing was Yahweh’s manifestation of power that Elijah probably believed the whole country would turn from their idolatry and believe in the one true God, including the infamous Queen Jezebel, the woman responsible for Israel’s recent descent into unbelief.

Instead, Jezebel sought to take Elijah’s life like that of the prophets he’d killed. Elijah ran away to save his life.

And the Lord brought him to the mountain of God.

In his competition with the prophets of Baal, the Lord had appeared in fire and amazing power. But on the mountain God did not manifest himself to Elijah in such pyrotechnics. Safe from the clutches of Jezebel who sought his life, the Lord brought Elijah deeper into his own plan. I believe God wanted Elijah to know that it was not Elijah’s plans that would save God’s chosen people, that would evoke their commitment to the God who was their Father. It was the work of the Lord himself. Mysterious. Beyond our comprehension. Somehow so all-embracing that it would even hold within it the infidelity of his children.   

After the wind, earthquake and fire, the Hebrew text says there was the qôl dem̆ āmâ daqqâ.  In Hebrew that literally means, the sound of thin or sheer silence, like we experience after a storm has passed. The NRSV translates it literally as “the sound of sheer silence.” The Common English Bible says “After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.”

And Elijah came to the mountain of God.

There to learn more about being than doing.

More about listening then proclaiming.

More about interrupted plans than perfect setups for successful ministry.

There are two authors who represent for me this thin and quiet silence found on the mountain of God when we are in times of turbulent unrest and uncertain future: Etty Hillesum and Christophe Libreton. I share below some of their words that are blessing me at this time:

Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz in November, 1943 at the age of twenty nine became, in the shadow of the concentration camps that was cast over her young life, a vibrant, brave woman of great spiritual depth. Her journals were published under the title An Interrupted Life. I am learning from her to value the interruption of life’s unfolding, the wisdom of lamenting, the blessing of burdens that cannot be lifted. The silence imposed upon the heart when we suffer deep down.

July 20 [1942], Monday morning. 9:30:

They are merciless, without pity. And we must be all the more merciful ourselves. That’s why I prayed early this morning:

‘Oh God, times are too hard for frail people like myself. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it even now in our hearts. Somewhere in me I feel so light, without the least bitterness and so full of strength and love.’

July 21, Thursday, 9:00 PM:

It is all a great big mess. I think to myself quite often, against my will as it were. But today I suddenly wondered why I used the word mess in the first place. It is so much hot air and doesn’t make things any better.

The most depressing thing of all is that the mental horizon of the people I work with is so narrow. They don’t even suffer deep down. They just hate and blind themselves to their own pettiness, their intrigue, they are still ambitious to get on, it is all a great big dirty mess, and there are moment when I would like to lay my head down on my typewriter and say, ‘I can’t go on like this.’ But I do go on, learning more about people all the time.

July 24, Friday morning 7:30:

If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain a greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will have been for nothing. (Washington Square Press, copyright 1985, page 195ff.)

Christophe Lebreton, OCSO (1950-1996) was the youngest of the seven Trappist monks assassinated in Algeria by terrorists in 1996. I remember the morning that the letter written by the prior of the community Fr. Christian was read shortly after their martyrdom. I have always felt a strong yet mysterious tie to this community, and this discovery of the journal of Fr. Christophe has only served to strengthen this bond. He began the journal four months before the terrorists first visited the monastery and it ends seven days prior to the monks’ kidnapping. There are so many treasures in Christophe’s journal which has been printed under the title: Born from the Gaze of God. He showed me how to step into the story of Jesus unfolding to this day. It is by assuming the authority of humble childhood that we bring to bear the gift of Jesus’ love over against the power random events of terror seem to have over us.

01/11/1994

Good news: there is an authority in this world
            stronger than the powerful,
            an authority unshaken in the face of the terrorists:
            the authority of humility:
            of CRUCIFIED TRUTH.

03/27/1994 Palm (Passion) Sunday

Jesus is the master of events: of what happens to us here…

Jesus, facing the violence in the narrative of his Passion, in Mark. … Jesus’ way of confronting it is to make us sit down at table.

Then facing a murderous decision, this is the space that resists and holds out: a place of essential conviviality, exchange, sharing.

And then something happens: a woman comes in a performs a foolish act that professes her love there in front of everybody. Love for the Beloved.

Like that man at Bologhine who picked up a policeman, wounded by a terrorist, who was lying in the middle of the road, he got him into his car and drove him to the hospital—and saved his life.

And was himself murdered a week later.

…Jesus stands there, facing the violence aimed at him, and says: as for me, I’m going to pray. Anguish. Still he says, “Abba!”

To face murder there’s only interior childhood in its indestructible relation to Abba. Jesus obeys and leaps in—and we along with him.

Onward! Stand up!

Over against the armed gang, Jesus counters with what he is: the Word. He speaks.

07/14/1994

When he appears, he will unclutter everything: I know nothing more. (Cistercian Publications, copyright 2014)

The quiet eye of the heart

Sometimes I just want to bury my face in my hands as a kneel before Jesus. Quiet. Rest. Serenity. Wisdom. Love. I need it all to bring a shattered heart back into one. Particularly in times of civil unrest, periodically shielding my heart from the opinions and actions of others gives me a chance to breathe. To breathe in the Spirit. To gaze at the world with the eyes of Christ.

They say it is a “quiet eye” that enables athletes to make breath-taking comebacks when they are under extreme pressure. A quiet eye enables the golf or tennis champion to sharpen their concentration. It is described as a kind of enhanced visual perception that allows the athlete to eliminate any distractions as they plan their next move.

Jesus once taught me about the single-hearted gaze, or the quiet eye, that is the natural way that the heart sees. He told me in a time of particular distress, “Just keep your gaze on me, and allow me to look deeply into your eyes, as long as keep our eyes locked in this trusting gaze, all these other things that worry you will be as they are meant to be. Just keep your eyes, Kathryn, on me.”

Burying my face in my hands is one way to eliminate the sight of anything else that would distract me from his Gaze, the Gaze that saves. It returns me to the natural heart-sight that sees more truly than the fixation of fear, anger, and revenge. When the children of Israel were bit by serpents in the desert because they had rebelled against the Lord, God told Moses to mount a seraph serpent on a pole and to raise it up above the people. Anyone who looks at it, the Lord said, would be saved. He drew their eyes toward what would heal them, and away from the chaos of what they must have been experiencing in a camp that had become infested with snakes. It would have been an act of sheer grit and absolute faith that would bring them to leave the position of self-protection to relationship with the One only who would could protect and heal them. God understands that we need something to draw our vision to him precisely when we are in the midst of times of personal or civil struggle.

  • Notifications of the latest post and tweet…. lift your eyes to Christ’s gaze.
  • Conversations that unsettle…. turn inward to receive Christ’s gaze.
  • Pictures of burning buildings, sounds of angry voices…. turn to search the face of Christ that offers that quiet place where your heart’s eye can begin to refocus.

In these days I have felt helplessness, disbelief, horror that one human being could do to another what we all witnessed in the last 9 minutes of Mr George Floyd’s life. Dismay that one person could do this to his brother, yes to his brother and mine, for we all, as sons and daughters of one Creator are brothers and sisters to each other, members of one another. How can we allow this to happen to our brothers and our sisters who have struggled for centuries under the intolerable burden of racism. I go back to that Gaze, the Gaze of Jesus that moment when he said to keep the quiet eye of my heart focused on him.

What is that Gaze?

It is the Gaze by which Jesus makes me his sister, his friend, his beloved. We communicate our hearts and our heart’s love or hate through our eyes. In the Gaze of Jesus I see the eyes of every single person in this country who at this time is trying to grapple with this. When I raise my eyes of Jesus in the Eucharist, I see their faces incorporated in his risen Body.

Somewhere deep inside me there is that flowing river of love that can hold in itself every brother and sister no matter how broken…

That can hold in my arms like the Pieta the body of Christ in my brothers and sisters who have been killed…

That can hold as children the lives of all my brothers and sisters who have clamored for others’ death, as Mary did when she beneath the cross became the Mother of John, and the Mother of everyone present that day clamoring for her Son’s death…

  • Breathe deeply.
  • Inhale and exhale. Notice any grasping. Any distraction. Any running from the quiet Gaze of the Lord.
  • Quietly bless them with Psalm 46: “Be still.”
  • Imagine God placing his hand on your head and blessing you. “Be still.”
  • Spend a few moments looking into the eyes of Christ, at a crucifix or statue, or the Blessed Sacrament if you are in a chapel.

From St. Ephrem the Syrian, a deacon and a prolific Syriac writer of hymns and theologian of the 4th century:

It is you, Lord, that they saw
when they cast their glance at one another.
It is you that your mother saw in your disciple
and it is you that the disciple saw in your mother.
It is you, Lord, that the Seers saw always, in a mirror.
They proclaim that we, too, can see you, O you, our Savior,
when we look at one another. (The Bridal Chamber of the Heart, La chambre nuptiale du coeur, pp 39-40)

And from John of Dalyatha:

Look into yourself and see God within you.
Fasten your eyes on your heart and God, rising out of your heart, will shine on your soul.
If you look there continually, that is where you will find the Kingdom:
that is to say, you will find, in yourself, God, who is your kingdom.
Because their diligence, he reveals himself to the small number of those who keep their eyes fixed in their interior, making a mirror of themselves where the Invisible One can be seen. (p. 48)

The quiet eye…

The gaze of a brother and sister…

The gaze of mother and child…

That gaze of a shattered and broken heart that still believes, still hopes, still knows that it is love that is holding us all together…

  • Invite your heart to be still. Offer a word of gratitude to God.

Coronavirus: The important shift is what happens within

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-symjv-dc365a

The anxiety that has bubbled just below the surface capsizing my frightened heart through all the experiences I’ve had during the lockdown has brought me in touch with anxiety issues that are nothing new. They have been woven through my life and have affected me spiritually and emotionally. This may be happening to you. Perhaps you are touching more keenly the wounds of  PTSD, OCD, scrupulosity, midlife losses as sands are shifting. Emotional struggles. Grief. Depression. Fear.

I’m reminded of what I was once told by a wise mentor: What is important is not the situation itself, but how we are with these situations that are calling us to doubt, question, and fear ourselves and sometimes life itself.

The realities that we live through can bring on headaches, sleeplessness, dissociation, emotional distress. Sometimes these can last for weeks, months, years. At times we are aware of how all this is wearing on us physically, psychologically, and spiritually. At other times it remains a secret even from ourselves.

Mindful practices, awareness exercises, contemplative presence can help us come home to who we are, as we are, in whatever space we are in….

Meditation of Presence: Return to the temple of the heart

God wants you!

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)

God knows that he made us to look directly into his Face, to rejoice in the delight he takes in us, to feel cherished by his tender gaze that  can never be marred by anger towards us.

We were made for him.

Deep down in our hearts, we know that. We resonate with the beat of our Creator’s heart. We seek his Face for it is only there that we rest at last in the love for which we were made.

God wants to reawaken this desire in you. He wants to refresh you in the midst of this very long epidemic of sorrow through which you are living. He wants you to seek the life you were meant to seek. He wants you to head home.

This is a video meditation that is a powerful antidote to the scary narrative all around us: the dire predictions, the endless what if’s, the numbers of daily cases, and the names of dear ones who have left us for the eternal shores of God’s infinite mercy.

I offer it to you as a gift.

Take a moment to direct your face anew to the Face of the One who loves you and will take care of you. Take a deep breath, and rest in his arms.

ENJOYED THIS VIDEO MEDITATION? HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO GO DEEPER…

God has amazing ways of knocking on people’s hearts, awakening desires, arousing questions, provoking an unexpected spiritual fire. If you have enjoyed this article, and are ready to embark on a sustained spiritual journey, here are 6 ways you can join me on the journey:
  1. Join my private Facebook Group and walk the road of healing with a great group of people. I offer a half-hour live spiritual conference here Tuesday evenings at 7pm EST
  2. Sign-up for my letter Touching the Sunrise. I write a letter a couple times a month from my heart to yours to support you along the way.
  3. Explore my books: Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach; Reclaim Regret: How God Heals Life’s Disappointments; Just a Minute Meditations Deeper Trust and Inner Peace. Enroll in the free 5-day email series introducing Reclaim Regret.
  4. Enroll in courses on Midlife, Contemplative Prayer, and a do-it-yourself downloadable Surviving Depression retreat
  5. Become a part of the HeartWork Community, a place where you can ask the hard questions and find a path to a life that is free, fulfilling and fruitful.

Let’s admit it: the most important shift during this pandemic for us will be the shift within

My heart is still quietly denying this is all happening at all. Coronavirus, pandemic, COVID-19, lockdown, quarantine, social distancing. There is a tiny place in me that is still shutting the door to it all and hoping that when I wake up tomorrow everything will be back the way it was before Christmas….

I still haven’t exactly come to terms within myself that something irreversible has happened to us all. Like other world-wide, life-changing struggles through which humanity has emerged throughout history, this too will change everything about our lives. We will mourn the loss of much. Eventually we will rejoice at positive inventions and policy changes that will see us into what will be. We are already seeing a touch of that in the new ways we are discovering we can use the internet for education, work and telemedicine. But the most important shift for each of us, will be what shifts within.

In these lockdown months I’ve found myself craving chocolate. More significantly, I’ve been more sensitive. I’ve fallen back into issues that have circled through my life periodically in the past 50 years. With boundaries gone I’ve felt unsafe and insecure. The larger questions of life have been surfacing: What do I need? Who am I? Do I like who I have become?

It isn’t just the pandemic or the lockdown that affects us. It’s all the unexpected and almost random divestment in our life that we have borne because of the lockdown. If I lose my job or my role, I lose the cluster of behaviors, friends, responsibilities, perks, schedules that were associated with it. I lose my sense of “me” that that job helped create, the meaning that I or my life had in that position. Overnight. At times with nothing to replace it. Other situations have arisen like knots in our days. I may be discouraged if I can’t keep the family happy in this new situation. If I’m not great at homeschooling, entertaining, encouraging, working from home, providing for my kids in social isolation. Who am I as a daughter or son when I can’t take care of my parents because I can’t get to them when they most need me? What if a project I worked on all last year has now been scrapped in this post-coronavirus world? How do I find the energy to go forward? The purpose? To begin again. Or change careers. How do I make the best decision in the face of an unknown future?

The anxiety that has bubbled just below the surface capsizing my frightened heart through all the experiences I’ve had during the lockdown has brought me in touch with anxiety issues that are nothing new. They have been woven through my life and have affected me spiritually and emotionally. This may be happening to you. Perhaps you are touching more keenly the wounds of  PTSD, OCD, scrupulosity, midlife losses as sands are shifting. Emotional struggles. Grief. Depression. Fear.

I’m reminded of what I was once told by a wise mentor: What is important is not the situation itself, but how we are with these situations that are calling us to doubt, question, and fear ourselves and sometimes life itself.

The realities that we live through can bring on headaches, sleeplessness, dissociation, emotional distress. Sometimes these can last for weeks, months, years. At times we are aware of how all this is wearing on us physically, psychologically, and spiritually. At other times it remains a secret even from ourselves.

Mindful practices, awareness exercises, contemplative presence can help us come home to who we are, as we are, in whatever space we are in.

Here’s an exercise in awareness you may find helpful:

Take a moment to close your eyes and take a few deep breath. Drop any expectations, plans, ideals, memories, anyone or anything outside of this moment. And relax.

Notice the sensations of touch, sound, taste, and smell.

Notice where you are sitting and the weight of your body.

Be aware of any feelings that you are experiencing.

Become aware of what manifests itself within you as you say slowly:

I am feeling something. I am aware of my body. (Pause)

I am experiencing something. I am aware of my emotions (Pause)

I am resisting something. I am aware of my thoughts and beliefs. (Pause)

I am more than this.

Drop down deeper into your heart. Into the center of your soul. Into that place where God has made his home within you. Where he reigns as King. Where he teaches, and leads, and comforts as Shepherd.

Quietly bow your head to the ground. And adore.

Breathing Peace. Breathing Fire. Having Courage to Take in the Pandemic

Before COVID-19 I was living my life unaware of my nothingness. As if I were the center. As if I made things happen. As if my efforts would make a difference. As if there was something in me to fix. A world to improve. Holiness to develop.

Breathing peace was about finding calm. Inner stillness. Making me more me, a better me.

But after one month of sheltering inside our convent as everyone else does the same, I realize that breathing peace is about accepting everything that is, as it is. About being okay with the pain. The uncertainty. The not-knowing what the new-normal will be. About not resisting unpleasantness. About not judging what is happening. Rejecting it. Refusing it. Resisting it.

Breathing peace is about breathing fire. It is to have the courage to take in the evil that surrounds me and is within me.

As Simone Weil stated in her First and Last Notebooks, the way to make use of pain, sorrow, disappointment, when almost the entire soul is crying out with one great refusal to receive what is transpiring, is to consent that this should be as it is until our death, even forever. She describes how when we do this the physically sentient part of our soul is split in two. The soul is divided by a “two-edged sword.” A deeper more intentionally grounded decisiveness appears which is free to soar above the sorrow, no longer chained by resistance, no longer captive to a wrestling match with what cannot be changed.

As the poet Rilke has written: “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Here is a simple practice to help you do something that is so contrary to the way we normally run from pain and hunger after pleasure.

Breathing in, breathing in your own evil, sickness, disappointment, not measuring-up, anxiety, disordered passions, thoughts and feelings. Imagine all this as darkness or a lost homeless child. Feel sympathy for yourself, sweet affection, loving kindness, gratitude.

Breathing out, bless the darkness with Jesus: “The Lord’s peace be with you.”

You can do this exercise when you find yourself anxious and you don’t know why, when you’re in a situation and you feel out of control, when you are afraid of the future or threatened in the present or regretful about the past.

You can do this exercise for your family, the world, the Church, all those suffering from COVID-19, all the health care workers who are putting their lives at risk, all those who are dying. Breathe in all their fear, all their love, all their worry… Bless them with the peace of Christ.

Do the same for events in the past: people, losses, abuse, the consequences of decisions made by you or others. Do it for everything you reject about your life, appearance, character, health, opportunities, personality, holiness. Do it also for everything that overwhelms you, for the way you feel irrelevant, uncertain, bewildered, fearful of dying, of death, of disappearing.

I love Nan Merrill’s paraphrase of Psalm 40 found in her book Psalms for Praying:

In your mercy, O Beloved deliver me!
O Love, make haste to help me!
Let my fears be put to rest,
fears that separate me from You.

Let all that keeps me from love,
from peace and gratitude,
be transformed within me. (page 78)

I have learned this month that there is nothing to fix, everything to love. Even in this pandemic when the world’s order is now turned to dust, there is everything to love, to be grateful for. Because Jesus is here. There is mystery in all that is happening, a mystery that is beyond the mind’s comprehension. Breathing peace is breathing the fire of choosing what is good for all, for the whole, before I claim what is good for me. Mystery is about putting God first. The other first. About remaining in silent wonder at what is being brought about before our very eyes. Yes. Let all that keeps me from this wonder be transformed within me that I might truly be de-centered, and re-centered around God’s glory in whatever way he desires that to be manifested in my blessedly insignificant life.

Amen

God also asks us to “shelter in place”

In the United States over 70 million are in lockdown under the government’s orders. Across the world, government officials are pleading with people to stay home. We all have at least a tinge of anger at the students and adults who have crowded the beaches, some of whom having now returned to colleges and universities are testing positive for coronavirus and are infecting others.

“Stay inside!” officials are pleading. “Stop going to the beach, to the park, to the bar….”

In his letter to the Cistercian communities, the Cistercian Abbot General Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, reflects on our difficulty in heading this call to stop flinging ourselves into work or pleasure:One stops only if one is stopped. To stop oneself freely has become almost impossible in contemporary western culture, which is globalized, for that matter. One does not even really stop on vacations. Only unpleasant setbacks manage to stop us in our breathless race to take ever greater advantage of life, of time, often also of other persons. Now, however, an unpleasant setback like an epidemic has stopped almost all of us. Our projects and plans have been annihilated, until we do not know when.”

In Psalm 46 God himself asks us to “be still,” we could say “to shelter in place in the inner shrine of our heart.” This invitation is a healing word to a people constantly running, entertaining ourselves, always throwing ourselves toward some future! It is a word of meaning. A call to pull ourselves away from the superfluous to what is of true value.

Anxiety can make it hard to stop. I mean, this is a “hard stop.”  We aren’t just changing directions or occupations or locations. We’re not taking a breather before throwing ourselves anew into life as we have known it. The world has stopped. Activities, the economy, political life, trips, entertainments, sports have stopped, as well as public religious life. It is when we are forced to stop that we discover how we still run inside. That we were holding on to something that suddenly doesn’t appear to be quite as important as it was. Yet to drop the dramatic investment we’ve created in it, is to admit that we don’t know who we are without it. As long as we are running inside, in our thoughts and fears and feelings and demands, we will not stay home unless there is a guard at the door. And we certainly will not stay “home” in the inner shrine of our heart.

“Be still,” God says, “and know that I am God” (Psalm 46).

Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori reflects further:  “God asks us to keep ourselves still; he does not impose it. He wants us to stop before him and remain freely, by choice, that is, with love. He does not stop us like the police who arrest a fugitive delinquent. He wants us to stop as one stops before a beloved person, or how one stops before the tender beauty of a newborn who sleeps, or at a sunset or a work of art that fill us with wonder and silence. God asks us to stop in recognition that, for us, his presence fills the whole universe, is the most important thing in life, which nothing can exceed. To stop before God means to recognize that his presence fills the instant and thus fully satisfies our heart, in whatever circumstance and condition we find ourselves.” 

When we get to the other side of this pandemic, and we will, this newfound silence of soul in the overwhelming power of divine presence is what we should keep alive always. A sense of our frailty. Of our child-like dependence on our Creator. With the “capacity to renounce what is superfluous to safeguard what is more profound and true in us and among us, with this faith that our life is not in our hands but in the hands of God.”

As we struggle through the anxiety of not knowing the consequences of this pandemic in our own lives and in our society, we are not left alone, as a child is not left alone by a good parent. “God enters into our trials, he suffers them with us and for us, to the point of death on the Cross. Thus he reveals to us that our life, in trial as also in consolation, has an infinitely greater meaning than the resolution of the current peril. The true peril that looms over our life is not the threat of death, but the possibility of living it without meaning, of living it without being directed toward a greater fullness of life and toward a greater salvation than health.”

So as you shelter in place, stay home, or perhaps put your own life at risk on the front lines of essential services and medical care, let these words of God bring your heart peace. “Be still, and know that I am God, exalted over nations, exalted over earth!” (Psalm 46) This pandemic is not more powerful than God who holds us all in the palm of his hand. Having “outward stillness” imposed on us through “lockdowns” gives us the opportunity to search for the tiny flickering lights of inner stillness, the relieved sighing of our exhausted hearts that we are not alone, that the darkness has never and will never overcome the divine plan at work in the world’s history. “A time of trial can make people harsher or more sensitive, more indifferent or more compassionate. Fundamentally, all depends on the love with which we live them out, and this above all is what Christ comes to grant us and to awaken in us with his presence. Any trial whatever comes and goes, but if we live it with love, the wound that the trial cuts into our lives will be able to remain open, like that on the Body of the Risen One, like an ever surging spring of compassion.”

Let us find through all of this, the love that will give us meaning, so that we will delight in being still and in cherishing what is of true value.

ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE? HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO GO DEEPER…

God has amazing ways of knocking on people’s hearts, awakening desires, arousing questions, provoking an unexpected spiritual fire. If you have enjoyed this article, and are ready to embark on a sustained spiritual journey, here are 6 ways you can join me on the journey:

  1. Join my private Facebook Group and walk the road of healing with a great group of people. I offer a half-hour live spiritual conference here Tuesday evenings at 7pm EST
  2. Sign-up for my letter Touching the Sunrise. I write a letter a couple times a month from my heart to yours to support you along the way.
  3. Explore my books: Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach; Reclaim Regret: How God Heals Life’s Disappointments; Just a Minute Meditations Deeper Trust and Inner Peace. Enroll in the free 5-day email series introducing Reclaim Regret.
  4. Enroll in courses on Midlife, Contemplative Prayer, and a do-it-yourself downloadable Surviving Depression retreat
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