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Spiritual medicine from a wise Trappist monk

The past few months have been quite a spiritual roller-coaster for me due to an experience in early summer that pushed me past the breaking point. I couldn’t even bring myself to attend Sunday Mass, something completely out of character for me. My family would head off to church, and I would stay behind, feeling cut off, unable to rouse the slightest spark of spiritual connection. Read more

What is the end you’re living for?

I was searching for something in my digital files and came across this column from January 2012. It seemed to ring true all over again, although, to be honest, I had totally forgotten about it — both the words and the lessons. So here it is again, if only for myself.

It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us. Read more

Remembering Thomas Merton

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton about 28 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I’m not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint, but that’s precisely why he’s a great example. Read more

Lessons from Brother Sun

So much happens on silent retreat, even though nothing at all seems to be happening. No talking, no reading, no writing, no casual eye contact. Doesn’t sound like much could be happening, does it? But, let me tell you, there is so much energy and movement and chatter going on under the surface, it’s hard to contain it. At one point on the first day, as I let go of everything that was going on in my head and heart, my interior was actually shaking, almost like I was shivering, but I wasn’t cold. Just a flood of feelings and emotions and questions that came rising up to the surface after being pushed down day after day by the normal events of life. Read more

Into great silence, Adirondack-style

I am so honored and humbled by the many, many prayer requests that have come pouring in from friends on Facebook. I asked people to send me their special intentions so I can carry them with me on silent retreat this weekend, and I now have three full pages — and I’ll be adding to the list right up until I leave at 3 p.m. in case you want to email me or leave an intention in the comment section before then. What a beautiful thing, to have people trust me with their worries and needs. I promise I’ll honor all of them. Although I’m not supposed to read on this silent retreat, I will make an exception for my prayer list so I don’t forget or miss anyone. Read more

More wisdom lessons: Embracing ‘what is’

I almost didn’t go to yoga class this morning. I was awake at 5 a.m. but my body felt worn out, more so than usual. I wanted to “sleep in” until 6:15, except I couldn’t sleep. So I figured, if I’m not going to sleep, I might as well do yoga. And off I went. Read more

Why Merton matters

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton some 25 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I’m not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint. But that’s precisely why he’s a great example. Read more

Striving to become your ‘true self’

My latest Life Lines column in the current issue of Catholic New York:

It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us.

I was at lunch with some friends recently, laughing and sharing stories, when one line, uttered in passing, hit me like a brick. I was suddenly on the playground in elementary school, feeling unwanted for reasons I never quite understood. As I had during those sometimes painful times of my past, I kept a dim smile on my face, hoping to hide the fact that I was aching inside, not because what was said was intentionally hurtful but because it spoke a truth I’d rather not admit.

We all want to be loved, even if we don’t show it or say it. We want to feel accepted, appreciated, and while that sometimes seems important on the surface—as evidenced by the popularity of accumulating Facebook friends by the hundreds—that kind of goal only serves to take us farther and farther from our truth. Read more

Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More

It’s always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.

I like the waiting time of Advent. I’m not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won’t be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.

This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:

“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

That role isn’t reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It’s not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).

I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called “Pray All Ways” by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here’s what I shared with my group (more or less):

As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he’s standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really “got” that story because most of the time I’m standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing — a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton’s words keep echoing in my heart: There’s no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.

When I returned to “real” life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God’s love in my life if I don’t let that love come out through me, if I don’t walk around shining like the sun, or Son.

It’s hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It’s much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can’t make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It’s not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?

And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn’t to be “up” all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn’t in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.

When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:

“Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight.”

The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there’s light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.

So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.