Tag Archives: Prayer

In Memory of Joe Palmisano, SJ

joeyA Jesuit friend assured me that they only invite the most wise and experienced spiritual directors to serve on the 30-day retreat.  I’d had some not-so-great directors on shorter retreats, so my biggest concern about completing the Spiritual Exercises was whether or not I’d have a good spiritual director. If you have to maintain sacred silence for 30 days, at the very least, I wanted someone good!

One of the first people I met at Eastern Point Retreat House was Fr. Joe Palmisano, SJ, who was assigned to be my spiritual director. I soon learned that he was only 36 years old, he had been ordained maybe 3 years, and this was only his second time directing the Spiritual Exercises. This could not possibly bode well for my retreat!

But Joey had this bright smile and a way of putting people at ease. We quickly discovered that we had many things in common. Most significantly, we shared a connection with the people of Nicaragua. Joe had traveled there on a service trip during college, and as a campus minister I had taken many students on mission to Nicaragua. We both enjoyed simple things like fresh flowers and saltwater taffy. And Joe had a brain tumor. It was an unlikely connection, but my spiritual director back home had a son, Michael, who was struggling with the same thing.

Joseph Palmisano, SJ, died last week on Christmas Day at age 41. He was first diagnosed in 2008, and when I met him in summer 2011, he was in relatively good health. I knew that his condition had worsened in recent years, and he eventually moved to the Jesuit infirmary at Campion Center, in Weston, Mass. Our last email exchange was nearly a year ago.

The past few days have been a flood of memories.  I spent last night reading through my journal from the 30-day retreat, hoping to catch another glimpse of Joe. I am all at once sad, and grateful, and …. laughing! Even as I type this, I keep spontaneously spelling out the word J-O-Y instead of J-O-E.

Joey proved to be wise beyond years, compassionate, kind, an attentive listener, and very funny.  I could not have asked for a better director! While I’m sure there are many people who knew Joe much better than I ever will, I am grateful for the 30 days we spent together on the shores of Eastern Point.

As I read through my journal last night, what I actually discovered is that I wrote a lot about JESUS.  Encounters with Jesus in prayer, stories about Jesus in scripture, long walks with Jesus along the ocean, and encouragement from Joe to keep spending time with the Lord!

Without a doubt, Joe would insist on giving God all the credit for my experiences on retreat – and rightly so.  It is God who forgives. It is God who heals. It is God who transforms our hearts and brings new life.

However, in all my years of being on retreat, I’ve learned that a good spiritual director can make all the difference in revealing God’s presence.

Joey introduced me to authors and poems and saints who I still treasure – Mario Benedetti, Edith Stein, James Alison, T.S. Eliot, a reflection from Gertrude the Great, The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg, and most profoundly, the writings of Walter Ciszek, SJ and St. Claude La Colombiere.

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In our last email exchange, I sent Joe a picture of this Mary and Jesus icon that I purchased on vacation.  His reply, “OMG!!! She is beautiful!!!”

Joey held Pedro Arrupe as his patron saint for healing, and he had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother.  In our prayer space on retreat, he had an icon of Mary, and every week he would bring her fresh flowers. He especially loved orchids. Joe presided at Mass one day – I think it was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – and he brought out all this gold fabric to decorate the altar.  I teased him about it later and he simply said, “Only the best for Our Lady!”  The year following retreat, I emailed Joe and asked for his prayers as I was leaving on another mission to trip to Nicaragua. He sent me a short note along with a photo – an icon of Mary next to an orchid plant.

There are so many conversations with Joe that I will treasure – stories that are much too personal to share or simply too difficult to put into words. I remember his patience with me when the graces of the retreat were slow to unfold. He delighted in the ways God revealed himself to each individual retreatant, especially in ways that took us both by surprise! One day, after a particularly difficult experience of reconciliation, Joey laid his hands on my head and prayed over me. It still brings me to tears.

We all need witnesses. We need mentors and guides. We need trustworthy companions to hear our stories and help us make sense of life.  I am so grateful to have Joey as a witness to the tremendous work that God was doing during that time.

Joey also stuttered. I usually forget that he stuttered, because after a while I hardly noticed. It is one of those qualities I truly appreciated about him. His speech impediment had a way of drawing people in. It forced me to slow down and pay attention to the present moment. It reminded me that we are all fragile, limited, imperfect human beings in need of God’s care.  And God uses all of what we have to offer – even our brokenness.

On the last day of the retreat, I asked Joe about what is real.  Are these mountain top experiences (like retreat) real or simply a figment of our imagination?  And how do you know that the Spiritual Exercises actually work?

He assured me that the spiritual life is real! Our experiences of God in prayer are real. Love and mercy and grace and forgiveness are real. And then he shared, quite personally (in details that I won’t reveal), of the ways he saw the graces of the Spiritual Exercises unfold in his own life.

The graces of the long retreat make us free and unafraid to be the man, the woman, the priest, the minister, the friend, the son or daughter, brother or sister whom God wants us to be. It was this heartfelt knowledge of God’s love that made Joey a friend to many and a most authentic soul in the world – even in the midst of a serious illness.

I am grateful to have met him when I did. When I count the spiritual mentors in my life – my spiritual director here in Chicago, the women in my prayer group, lay men and women with whom I have served, my best friends, and numerous priests who I have known as colleagues or confessors – Joe Palmisano will always be included in the litany of saints who have graced my life and brought me closer to God.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon him
May his soul and the souls of all the faithfully departed
Rest in peace.
Amen.

Peace and Love,

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Let Advent Rise

Adventt12Every once in a while, the ordinary ritual that we depend upon for our daily prayer takes on extraordinary power. Sometimes it happens because of the circumstances of life that bring us to Church that day. Other times by the mysterious mingling of prayer and preaching, scripture and song, sacramental grace, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t have any meetings on my calendar on Tuesday morning, so I decided to spend some extra time at Church. St. Ben’s is never as quiet as I would like, and I began to second guess my decision to stay for Mass, as a band of teenagers started strolling into church.

Without hesitation, someone sat down at the piano, and began plucking away at the keys. At the same time, a young woman confidently approached the microphone and waited for her cue.  And then this VOICE began streaming through the sanctuary.

Let praises rise – from the inside – from the inside of me

May you delight – in the inside – in the inside of me

Come fill my life – from the inside – from the inside of me

Set me on fire – from the inside – from the inside of me

As I listened to them rehearse, my mood relaxed, and I knew something special was about to happen. This all-school liturgy was not ordinary daily Mass.

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I suppose to truly understand the power of Tuesday’s prayer, you have to understand what’s happening in our city.

The violence that rocks our city breaks my heart. I moved to Chicago 20-years ago to spend a year as a volunteer, teaching in some of these same neighborhoods.  There is so much that has NOT changed in my time here. Gang violence and gun violence has taken more lives again this year. Stories of a police cover up only add insult to injury. Amid peaceful protests, the chief of police was let go, and there are some who are calling for the resignation of key city leaders.  It’s kind of a mess.

You also have to understand that it’s Advent.

I love these weeks of patiently waiting and closely watching for the coming of Christ. This year though, I have no patience for platitudes. I’m angry, and I want JUSTICE. Perhaps I fall into the same trap as the ancient people – I want a Savior!  I want someone who is going to interrupt the system, rid the city of corruption, implement better gun control laws, and lead us toward racial equality once and for all.

And yet, Advent (and Christmas) reminds us that Justice entered the world as a child – small and vulnerable, poor, a refugee.  We are confronted each year by this radical juxtaposition – that the king of kings, the prince of peace – comes to us as an infant.

In the midst of a hurting world, in these early days of Advent, we read the classic Advent text – Isaiah’s vision of unpredictable peace where enemies become friends. This is the text we heard on Tuesday morning:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them. 

A certain rule of thumb says that a good homily will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. As one who is generally far too comfortable, I don’t mind the occasional spiritual challenge. In my mind, the best preaching usually includes a moment where I squirm in my seat and think to myself, “Is he really going to go there in his homily?”  (Indeed, he went there!)

Fr. Jason stopped short of saying their names, but everyone in Chicago knows the story of the 9-year old little boy who was executed in an alley at 80th and Damen – Tyshawn Lee. A story that hits even closer to home when you know the Damen Avenue bus stops four blocks from our church – take the Damen bus 120 blocks south and you’re there.

And he was not asking a rhetorical question when he reminded everyone that our city continues to mourn the death of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, and then asked, “How many times was he shot?” The murmur of teenage voices across the church repeating the refrain “16 times”.  The details are not lost on anyone; certainly not on our young people.

I cannot underestimate the power of these two tragedies in our city placed alongside the scripture proclaimed that day, and the power of preaching that brought them to light.

Claiming a line from the Gospel reading, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23) What do you see?  All we see is tragedy, and yet the prophet Isaiah tells us that faith can transform our vision.  We must look at the world with brutal honesty, but at the same time, we must believe there is a better way to respond.  We cannot deny the violence that is right here in front of our eyes; but we also hold tight to faith – and that faith has the power to transform even the greatest tragedy, death itself, into people who act for justice. Faith compels us to see the unthinkable, and still love one another more.

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It would have been enough to stop there.  So much had already been said, in both the scripture and the prophetic challenge to live out our faith in daily life.  But the beauty, and power, of our Catholic ritual is that it does not stop with the Word.  We are a Eucharistic people.

In bread and wine, we know that Christ Jesus is really truly present.  And in receiving him, we become what we receive.  We become Christ – people of peace, bearers of justice, compassion, and mercy.

Eucharist is about what’s on the inside.  It changes us – from the inside.

During Communion, the choir sang that song I had stumbled into when I was looking for a quiet place to pray half an hour ago. (I later found this rendition online, which captures the spirit of how our high school students lifted their voices in song.)

Let praises rise – from the inside – from the inside of me

May you delight – in the inside – in the inside of me

Come fill my life – from the inside – from the inside of me

Set me on fire – from the inside – from the inside of me

‘Cause all I want – Is for you – For you to be glorified

For you to be lifted high

All I want – Is for you – For you to be glorified

For you to be lifted high

And I thought to myself … this is Advent.

Peace is only going to rise up in our city if it comes – from the inside.
What will we fill ourselves with this Advent?

God, the one who knows our hearts, delights on what’s on the inside.
How will God delight in us this Advent?

We are set on fire to become a light for the world. What sets us apart from those who would choose violence, and hatred, and revenge, and racism?

Isn’t this what Advent is all about?
As we await his coming, in a world in which he has already been born.

God chose to enter into the world 2,000 years ago – into an occupied country, amidst fear and violence – because he knew how desperately the world needed to see him!

And today, God chooses to be born again into a world divided, a city in mourning, amidst fear and violence – because he knows how desperately the world needs to see him. And God needs us!  God needs us to be his presence in the world today.  Blessed are the eyes who will see us and see Christ!

There is so much that is NOT RIGHT with our world and in our city.

For one moment, at the beginning of Advent, it was so clear to me – change begins on the inside.  Love is born – on the inside.  Peace begins – on the inside.  Mercy is expressed – first on the inside.

I am so grateful to know this at the start of Advent – that somehow in the midst of all this anger and injustice and violence in our city – God is at work, on the inside.

Something new is waiting to be born – inside of me.  (And I believe, inside of you, also.)  Something that will take root, and take action, when the time is ripe.  A renewed sense of peace, and love, and mercy, and justice.

This is the gift of Advent. This is the hope I long for. This is the faith that transforms us.  This is the power of faith that ultimately will transform our city and the world.

Our praise adds nothing to your greatness, God,
But when this “something new” comes to life,
I want only for you to be glorified, for you to be lifted high.
AMDG

 

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By Waiting and By Calm

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I generally like to think that I’m a patient person. Lately, however, all of this waiting is really trying my patience!  Throughout this period of transition, there has always been something to keep me busy – writing assignments, part-time work, Spanish classes, job searches, preparing reflections for my prayer group, networking dates, trying new recipes, hanging out with friends. One of the keys to staying hopeful is simply having something to look forward to each day!

Last week, for the first time in almost 10 months, I finally hit that moment where I just wanted to bang my head against the wall and shake my fist in exasperation.  I am so done with the waiting game!

The most recent round of waiting has gone something like this:

I found this amazing job posting!  I spent the weekend polishing my cover letter … I applied for the job … I had two really great phone conversations … Wait … First interview … Wait … Wait … Second interview! … Wait … We’d like to check your references!! … Wait … Waiting some more … Still waiting … (ugh).

I’ve been assured that this is normal, and coming from the business world, I really appreciate their thoroughness!  The time line has also been interrupted by Holy Week schedules and Spring Break holidays.  (I appreciate that, too.)  Luckily, each step along the way has been met with positive feedback and hopeful signs.  But by now, I feel like a five year old waiting for Christmas, especially since I can see the presents sitting right there under the tree in front of me!

I have to admit though, this most recent round of waiting feels different than the waiting I was doing … say, six months ago.  Perhaps I’m more prone to growing impatient now, because there is a very clear end in sight.

It is much more difficult to wait for something ambiguous and unknown.  Spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, reminds us that waiting is an active, not passive, activity.  Part of the spiritual discipline is to remember that something is happening in the stillness.  Nouwen writes:

People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important.  We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun in us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.

From time to time, I pull out my bucket list.  I’ve also gone back to that wishful thinking exercise that I used with our students, “If you could take a semester off, how would you spend your time?” This weekend, I think I’ll embark on my list of Cheap Things To Do In Chicago.  I keep telling myself that there is still time – to spend a day at the museum, to dive into a home improvement project, to go for a long walk along the lake.  Time is a gift, so how can I use it well?

Assuming this job offer comes through, my life is about to get extremely busy!  I keep reminding myself that a year from now, I’m going to wish that I had a little more down time, a little more flexibility, a few more lackadaisical spring days with nothing pressing on my calendar.

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During Lent and Easter, I’ve been reading Tim Muldoon’s book “The Ignatian Workout for Lent” which offers 40 short spiritual reflections based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  On the Monday after Easter (when this misery of waiting brought me to a halt), I read this reflection based on the post-resurrection narrative of Jesus and Peter at the seashore.

The disciples knew Jesus had risen, but they had no idea what this meant!  They had gone back to Galilee and returned to what they knew – fishing.  In hindsight, we see these Easter days as a time of great celebration.  But the disciples were still confused and waiting for Jesus to offer some kind of guidance.  This particular reflection could not have come at a better time for me.  Muldoon writes,

“There will be time for the work of the kingdom; for now, it is enough simply to break bread with Jesus and eat fish with him.  Life after Resurrection is not a relentless cycle of actions to change the world; it involves patient waiting for the Lord.  Most important is not endless activity but willingness to wait for the Lord and simply be with him.  We may be active, but our action will not bear fruit unless the Lord directs it.  Wait for him.” (Muldoon, 152)

As I was putting together these thoughts this morning, I did a quick search of my own writing files.  I found a note, scribbled in the sidebar of a talk I gave nearly ten years ago, when I was making the shift from the corporate world into graduate school.  Given the timing of client visits and other transitions, I had given my notice in April, while I wasn’t starting graduate school until August.  That was a lot of time!

I wrote:  “This period of waiting meant I had time to make peace with my new reality.  It gave me time to make amends with difficult people and situations; time to grieve all that could have been and projects that would be left incomplete; time to create closure on that chapter in my life and truly begin to discern my next career move.”

It’s funny how similar and appropriate those remarks are to my current transition.  These 10-months in between full-time jobs has given me the time and space to grieve and to say farewell to people who were important to me.  It’s also given me a tremendous amount of space to creatively imagine what the future holds and to discern God’s will in the midst of it all.

Again, Henri Nouwen speaks of the creativity of waiting:

To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.

I’ve been given every assurance that good news is coming soon.

Thanks for waiting with me.

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Confessions of a Novena Skeptic

MattPMy friend Matt (Rounding30) was recently diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.  As far as cancer goes, this is by far the “best kind of cancer” one could have.  He has been assured by doctors and survivors that Hodgkins is curable.  He is in excellent health with no real symptoms (other than a big lump on his neck).  Still in the early stages, Matt has none the less reached out to friends far and wide asking for their prayers.  Matt specifically asked all of his friends to pray this nine day novena to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.  Today is Day 9 that I’ve been praying for Matt.

What’s a novena?  Basically, a novena is a series of prayers, usually recited for a prescribed number of days (typically 9) where we ask the saints – our great cloud of witnesses, those whom we know to be with God in heaven – to plead our cause on our behalf.  We ask the saints to pray with us and for us.

I used to be really suspicious of novenas.  To be honest, I still AM a little suspicious of novenas.  They seem a little too “hocus pocus” for me.  All too often I’ve seen novenas that are akin to email chain letters promising all your dreams come true if just you read these saccharine sweet words aloud and then forward them to exactly seven of your friends including the person who sent this to you.

Prayer isn’t magic.

Prayer always begins and ends with our relationship with God.  The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind.  Rather, we place ourselves before God in prayer in order that God can transform our hearts and draw us closer to Him.  After all, God already knows what is best for us.  God is God, and we are not.

For the last three weeks, Matt has gone public with his fears (and sighs of relief) over complicated medical procedures.  An accomplished journalist and natural story teller, his regular blog updates are not only a great way to keep friends informed, but perhaps a bit of therapy at the end of the day as well. He’s been incredibly forthcoming about the strength he finds in knowing that hundreds of people are lifting him up in prayer.  Honestly, Matt’s testimony could make even the greatest skeptic a firm believer in the power of prayer!

In some ways, asking the saints to pray for us is no different than putting a shout out via our favorite social media channel and receiving a rousing affirmation and promise of prayers from our friends.  Who doesn’t need a little help from their friends every once in a while?  Especially if that friend is also close friends with God!

Perhaps there are still a few novena skeptics out there who need a bit of convincing.  Well, despite my own disbelief, I know with great certainty that the communion of saints will plead our cause to God!  Here’s my living proof:

ST. THERESE OF LIXIEUX
therese-as-a-childSt. Therese’s mission was to make God loved!  She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”  This young woman once dreamed of becoming a great missionary and even hoped to die a martyr!  Sidelined by a long illness, she spent her days supporting the missions by her prayer.  St. Therese died from tuberculosis at age 24, and today she is considered one of the great patron saints of missionary causes.  (You can also watch this great story of her life here.)

Many of you know that I’ve been traveling to Nicaragua for over twelve years to volunteer with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation.  Before our very first campus ministry trip in 2006, I prayed this novena to St. Therese of Lisiuex.  Many people have reported receiving roses upon completion of a novena to St. Therese.  I was wary about the flowers and told myself that I was only asking Therese’s assistance for the sake of our mission.  I did not tell anyone about this, and on the last day of the novena, I happened to attend a luncheon.  Afterwards, someone stopped me and gave me one of the table centerpieces (filled with roses!) and said, “I thought you might like to have this.”  All these years later, those Nicaragua trips are still going strong, and that was not the first time St. Therese sent me flowers!

ST. FRANCIS XAVIER
XavierHaitiSt. Francis Xavier is another great patron saint of missionaries.  St. Francis Xavier was a Jesuit priest and one of the first followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  He was first sent as a missionary to India and later ministered to the people of Southeast Asia and Japan.  His right arm (the hand he used to bless and baptize converts) is preserved at Il Gesu Church in Rome, which I visited this past summer.  My fondness for praying with St. Francis Xavier was completely accidental yet quite providential!

Several years ago, we had to cancel our Nicaragua mission trip due to a conflict of dates.  At the same time, we were struggling to work out the details of a potential trip to Haiti instead.  During my summer retreat, I stumbled upon this novena to St. Francis Xavier.  Shortly after returning from retreat, some important logistical details began to fall into place.  Not only did we send mission groups to both Nicaragua AND Haiti that year, but the village where we stayed in Haiti had a church named St. Francis Xavier.  Coincidence?  I think not!

54-DAY NOVENA TO THE BLESSED MOTHER
Last spring, I went to visit my sister for a long weekend.  While I was there, I met a friend of my sister who told me two almost-unbelievable stories about praying a 54-day novena to the Blessed Mother.  This novena involves praying the rosary every day for 54 days. (No small feat for anyone in my humble opinion!)

mary-icon-bulgariaI had never met this woman before, and she had no idea of the personal situation in my life that was already unfolding.  I’d been anxious about some things at work, and I was uncertain about where to turn.  I shared very little of my story with her, but she did not hesitate to share her novena stories with me!

She warned me that the graces of this novena are quite unimaginable.  From her own experience, it was clear that God had answered her prayers in some utterly surprising ways.  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need, yet she assured me, these are the kind of graces you will receive from this novena!

To be honest, I’ve never particularly enjoyed praying the rosary, and I could feel my novena skepticism kicking in!  I went online to do a little research about the 54-day novena, and I came across this commentary which confirmed my own sensibilities.  It reiterated what I have always ascribed to – that there is no “magic formula”.  This is not about saying all the right words, in the right order, at the exact time every day.  What is most important is that we give our hearts to God.  (And in this case, ask Mary to pray with us, too!)

RosaryBraceletIt’s funny, for someone who doesn’t “like” praying the rosary, I always keep a rosary in my purse!  (How’s that for superstitious hocus pocus?!)  I prayed the rosary on the airplane ride home that night and continued to do so for the next 53 days.  Even on the most hectic days, I would look forward to spending this time in prayer and experienced a tremendous amount of inner calm while I prayed.  I remember saying once, “God, if the only grace I receive from this novena is 20 minutes of peace a day, I will take it!”

In the midst of this novena, I learned that my position at work was being eliminated.

After the immediate shock wore off, the peace I experienced was almost exponential!  I haven’t shared this with many people, because it still seems absurd to me that someone could lose their job (a job that I loved dearly!) and experience this kind of consolation. Six months later, I’m still searching for full-time employment.  I’m also taking Spanish classes, doing some freelance writing, and considering a long-term volunteer project with our Nicaragua partners.  And I continue to experience a peace and a freedom that is beyond my understanding!

There is certainly no comparison between losing one’s job and acquiring a cancer diagnosis.  Although, I think there is a particular gravitas and emotional strain that uniquely results from either one.  Upon confirming the doctor’s initial suspicions, Matt posed this rhetorical question on his blog:

“Who gets a cancer diagnosis and spends the day feeling grateful?
This guy, apparently.”

Not unlike the affirmation I experienced after praying with St. Therese or St. Francis or the Blessed Mother – it’s called grace my friend! It is nothing less than God’s unabashed love for you – reminding you that you’re exactly where you are meant to be.  We aren’t always able to see God working in our lives in such obvious ways.  What a gift when it’s right there for us to see!  Time and time again, I’m reminded that faith is not about easy answers or magical solutions.  It is about trusting in the deeper mysteries of God.

A LESSON IN MIRACLES
Finally, while we’re on the subject, one important note….

I’m sure that many (if not all) of us have lost family members and other loved ones to cancer or other horrible diseases.  Good and faithful people die of cancer every day, even those whose friends and family never ceased praying for them!  God hears all of our prayers, even if God does not answer them in the ways we would want.

joan-of-arc2I have some dear friends who lost their teenage son to cancer several years ago.  Near the end of his life, it became clear that a “cure” was highly improbable.  Their family and friends continued to rally and pray for a miracle.  With great trust in God’s mercy, my friends affirmed what we believe as people of faith – we believe in the resurrection!  Death was not the end for Jesus, and it is not the end for us either!  My friends knew that long days of sadness and mourning awaited them, but they were never without hope – even in the face of death.

I was so impressed by what they shared on their blog, and I will try to summarize it here.  They said:  We know that many of you are praying for a miracle.  We are humbled by your prayers that our son would experience a physical cure.  Please keep those prayers coming!  But sometimes the greatest “miracle” is being able to catch a glimpse of the impossible work of God that remains hidden most of the time.  God can use the worst tragedy (cancer, brain tumors, even death!) to accomplish the miraculous: reconciling alienated family members, forging a bond between siblings, or inspiring renewed faith in those who have left the church or doubt the existence of God.  We are confident that a miracle awaits us, even if a cure for cancer does not!  (Inspired by their son’s courage, they continue to fight for a cure.)

I think about my friend Matt and the journey he has undertaken. Thanks to modern medicine, I have no doubt that he will experience a complete CURE to this unfortunate disease.  My hope is that his upcoming bout with chemo will be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience, and life can return to “normal” in a few short months.  Although, I suspect he will be forever changed by coming face to face with the reality of cancer, and I can already see his life transformed by the tremendous outpouring of love and support from his friends.

I know Matt to be a person of deep faith.  And I know that God is faithful to all who put their trust in Him. I have no doubt that we will soon be celebrating the life of a young man who is cancer free!  And I am confident that God will use this time in Matt’s life to accomplish the miraculous.

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Divino Niño Jesus

DivinoNinoJesus

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Of Spiritual Writers and Poets

booksWhen I packed up my office, I brought home NINE boxes of books!  Well, to be honest, some of those boxes contains file folders, photographs, and my cross collection.  But most of them are books!  There are plenty of things keeping me busy these days, but I try to spend a little bit of time each day reading, and I have a plethora of books from which to choose!

I always start the day with scripture – usually in the form of the daily mass readings or sitting with the psalms from the liturgy of the hours.  I especially enjoy Pamela Greenberg’s translation of the psalms and keep of copy of her book The Complete Psalms close by.

My coffee table is cluttered with books about discernment including the classic Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, a well-worn copy of When The Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd, and a copy of Henri Nouwen’s posthumously and recently published Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life

I’ve started a running list of definitions for ‘vocation’ and ‘discernment’.  These three are scrolled into my journal, and I refer to them often:

  • The purpose of discernment is to know God’s will, that is, to find, accept, and affirm the unique way in which God’s love is manifest in our life. To know God’s will is to actively claim an intimate relationship with God, in the context of which we discover our deepest vocation and the desire to live that vocation to the fullest.  It has nothing to do with passive submission to an external divine power that imposes itself on us. It has everything to do with active waiting on a God who waits for us.  – Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life.  
  • The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it.  So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs done, but to become aware of what God is doing so I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.  – Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (as quoted in When the Heart Waits).  
  • What makes our daily life a vocation is our willingness to use it as a way of praising God, regardless of how mundane or boring it may currently seem to us.  … Pray to the Holy Spirit, in order that you might more fully listen to and do the will of God in your life.  Pray for wisdom to know God’s will, courage to do God’s will, and hope to love God’s will.  – Tim Muldoon, The Ignatian Workout

Given the unexpected nature of my departure, there are several other books that have proven helpful not only for people in transition, but also during times of abrupt change.  Several years ago, I discovered Robert Wicks’ book Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times.  He offers this parable for those seeking a new perspective:

[This] … is an unasked for and unusual opportunity to be graced with radically new ways to relate to ourselves, others, even to life itself.  There is a Persian proverb that sums it up well: “If life throws a knife at you, you can catch it by the blade or by the handle.”  The question is will we recognize and take this opportunity, or will we only focus on the suffering and miss the opportunities for radical inner change that this spiritual experience offers?

Another great book is The Other Side of Chaos: Breaking Through When Life is Breaking Down by Margaret Silf.  I devoured this book in less than a day!  It includes short chapters with titles like “God Bless This Mess”, “Can Bad News Be Good News?”, and “Will You Save Your Life or Spend It?”  I’ve enjoyed Margaret Silf’s writing for many years.  She is a witty story teller who quickly cuts to the heart of the matter while extending deep insights to her readers.

Finally, in my work with college students, Transitions and Seasons were common themes – from  retreats, to spiritual direction, to graduation, and when saying good-bye at the end of the school year.  I amassed a myriad of poems and prayers for times of transition that I promise to share from time to time.  One of my favorites “The Annunciation” by Denise Levertov prompted me to check out her collection of poetry from the local library.  In it, I discovered several new favorites.  In closing, I will share just one that seems to capture this journey on which I find myself:

A Traveler
by Denise Levertov

If it’s chariots or sandals,
I’ll take sandals.
I like the high prow of the chariot,
the daredevil speed, the wind
a quick tune you can’t
quite catch
but I want to go
a long way
and I want to follow
paths where wheels deadlock.
And I don’t want always
to be among gear and horses,
blood, foam, dust.  I’d like
to wean myself from their strange allure.
I’ll chance
the pilgrim sandals.

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Some Definite Service

John_Henry_NewmanI am still clearing out emails.  I have to admit, back in June, the task of responding to email was too overwhelming for me.  After ten years on campus, there were countless relationships with colleagues, alumni, students, and community members – many of whom I intend to stay connected with in one form or another.  My heart is filled with gratitude for all that we were able to do together, but hitting “reply” one last time from my .edu address was a painful reminder of the finality of my work there.  Be assured that I still have the best intentions of replying to everyone who wrote with a thank you or words of encouragement or job leads or offers to review my resume! 

This week, as I was shuffling through a few more notes, I came across an email from a student.  She is a graduate student at another major mid-west university.  Her parents live in the Evanston area, so although she was not a Northwestern student, she would occasionally make her way to the Sheil Center during breaks from school.

We would spend a few minutes talking before/after mass, and one time she even sat in on a class I was teaching.  I often found myself offering a genuine “welcome home” whenever she wandered in during those times when her school was on break but Northwestern was still in session.  

When she saw the message about my position being eliminated, she sent an email to let me know that the Newman Center at her university had an opening.  She ended her email with this P.S. …

Much prayers and blessings and hopes for the road ahead.  I look forward to seeing where life takes you!   By the way, I thought you might like to know that (to my utter surprise) I’ll probably be taking theology/scripture courses for the first time this school year in (hopeful) preparation for a graduate certificate in Spirituality after my PhD. Thanks for being part of what got me started down this weird and wonderful winding path – our brief interactions in Sheil made a deeper impression than you know!   

Wow!  Ministry is a humbling profession.  We never really know the depth of our impact.  Endeavors that were significant to me sometimes went unnoticed.  On the other hand, I am amazed when students remember the smallest favors or words exchanged in quick succession.  I’ve heard students repeat lines from my classes, retreat talks, and late night conversations – even many years later.  Little do we know the impact we have or the reason why God has situated us in a particular place at a particular time. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman’s prayer “Some Definite Service” provides some wonderful reflection during times of discernment.  He reminds us that God indeed has a plan for our life.  And there is something in particular that God desires for us, although we may never see the fruits of it in this lifetime.  We are able to serve God in every time and season of life.  God uses every part of us to accomplish his divine work.

Some Definite Service

Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman

God knows me and calls me by my name.…

God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me
     which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission—I never may know it in this life,
     but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…
     I have a part in this great work;
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection
     between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good,
     I shall do His work;
I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth
     in my own place, while not intending it,
     if I do but keep His commandments
     and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him.
     Whatever, wherever I am,
     I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be
     necessary causes of some great end,
     which is quite beyond us.
He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life,
     He may shorten it;
     He knows what He is about.
     He may take away my friends,
     He may throw me among strangers,
     He may make me feel desolate,
     make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—
     still He knows what He is about.…
Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—
     I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

from Meditations and Devotions,
“Meditations on Christian Doctrine,”
“Hope in God—Creator”, March 7, 1848

I am grateful for these reminders today.  I am especially grateful for the many people who have written to tell me how they see the impact my work has had on their life.  It helps me to name my gifts, my strengths, my priorities, and my successes as I enter further into the job search.  And it also provides a tremendous amount of hope that God is using my life for his purpose (in ways that are paid and unpaid, career related and personally fulfilling) even if I don’t see the end result quite yet.

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