Some say the anti-Catholicism in S&H wasn’t so bad. My response.

Some say the anti-Catholicism in S&H wasn’t so bad. My response.

Yesterday, when I posted my Letter to the Editor canceling my subscription to Spirituality & Health magazine over its anti-Catholic agenda, a few folks on Facebook declared one particular piece I mentioned “not that bad.” Another said how it was “stereotypical” and what did I expect from a spiritual-but-not-religious publication. Well, I expect not to have my faith insulted via lies and some of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever heard. And the fact that any Catholic could read all of those stories — taken as a whole, not dissected piece by piece — and shrug his or her shoulders and say it’s not that bad, or it’s what we should expect, is exactly the point of my outrage and disappointment. (more…)

Manic Monday: Returning to ‘normal’ life

Our Christmas tree came down last night, along with the rest of the decorations. The magi hardly had time to settle down in front of the creche when I shipped them off to the basement. Such is the end of the season, at least around here. By this time of year, I’m ready to return to ordinary time and Ordinary Time.

So here’s what’s on tap on this Manic Monday…

The above YouTube clip is a follow-up to last week’s ‘Twinkle’ post. Someone captured the kids playing at Mary Jane’s funeral. (Thanks, Pam, for sending that to me.) When the clip is rolling, Olivia happens to be visible on and off over on the left in the cream-colored top.

Bookshelf: I’m reading about a dozen different books all at once as research for the two books I’m writing, but there’s one that stands out right now, a recommendation from a Facebook friend. It’s called Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire. Loving it so far. Here’s one piece that resonated with me because I have experienced it so powerfully myself:

“Over the years I had prepared meals in quiet rooms, in accidental silence, as I would later come to call it, but I was discovering that intentional silence brought a focus to everything. Ordinary acts — measuring oats and water, chopping walnuts, scooping out a handful of raisins, stirring oatmeal — were transformed into meditations simply by the attention stillness brought to the tasks. Later, scrubbing out the gummy saucepan, I found unexpected pleasure in this simple job. I was experiencing what Buddhists have always taught: Silence, along with the attention it fosters, is our anchor to the present, to the here and now.”

Perfect. Today when I make my silent oatmeal, as I do each weekday, I will do so with those words ringing (silently, of course) in my head, reminding me that this practice of still, slow eating truly does allow me to bring a depth and calmness to my day that is absent when I skip this favorite ritual. My meditative breakfast has become, without question, one of my best prayer moments of any day.

Soundtrack: Dreamland by Madeleine Peyroux, something Dennis discovered on The Coffee House on Sirius. A bunch of it’s in French. Very cool. Check it out.

Viewfinder: Below is a shot of my Christmas gifts, or most of them, collected on the dining room table. Makes you wonder if perhaps I’m planning to open a monastery or a retreat center. We’ve got prayer flags up front; the official Abbey Psalter from the Abbey of the Genesee; Yoga Prayer DVD by Father Thomas Ryan, CSP; Landscapes of Prayer: Finding God in Your World and Your Life by Margaret Silf; a cross candle holder; a Himalayan singing bowl; incense, lots of it; a tea set with Zen tea. I did get some other goodies that had nothing to do with prayer or spirituality, like the Midnight in Paris DVD and a flameless candle, although that last one borders on spiritual, too, doesn’t it?

My Christmas bounty.
The lovely Abbey Psalter.
Visiting my grandmother, who turned 99 on New Year’s Day.
Birthday boy.

Mindfulness Bell: The Sound of Silence

I have a little (easy) exercise for you to do today, or this morning. For the next few hours, pay attention to all the noises you hear. Not just the talking from the next cubicle or the voice on the other end of the phone, but the smaller, less obvious noises.

The ding of emails coming in, tweets being posted, texts being sent, Facebook chats being initiated.

The melodic tune played by the washer and dryer when they finish a cycle. The whir of the dishwasher. The rat-a-tat-tat of construction workers. The music on the car radio. The honking horn of the truck behind you.

Whatever sounds float your way, make note of them.

How many of those sounds stir a little angst in you, maybe without you even realizing it at first? The email dings, and you worry that it’s about that project you’re struggling with. The phone rings and you fear one of the kids is calling from the nurse’s office. Now, how many of those sounds can you remove from your life? Some of them are easy, others impossible. But begin to turn off the unnecessary stuff.

I recently went into my program preferences and turned the audio off on my emails, instant messenger and other programs so I won’t be distracted by the constant dinging of work piling up as I try to write a book or do yoga or meditate. (Coffee maker just beeped as I was writing that last word.) Clearly, some sounds we just have to live with, but we can begin to actively work to quiet our world, and our lives.

In keeping with all of this, I decided to add one sound to the mix in order to bring about more silence.

Sounds contradictory? At first it felt that way, but now it is doing exactly what I had hoped it would do. About a month ago, I downloaded something called the “mindfulness bell” after seeing it listed in the resource section of a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The idea was that the bell, which sounds like a Himalayan singing bowl being struck just once, would ring at the top of every hour as a reminder to stop for just a few seconds and re-center myself, whisper a short prayer, and move on. I also activated a second bell program that would ring at the start and end of a set 20-minute time period, figuring this would be my meditation marker so I wouldn’t always be wondering if I’d reached 20 minutes yet, which can be very distracting during meditation. (Not that I can fit in a full 20 minutes very often.)

Well, somehow I did something that had these bells ringing a little too frequently. At first I found myself frustrated. Bells, bells, bells. This wasn’t making me mindful; this was making me crazy. But then I clicked around and got it to where it needed to be. Once an hour. Now I’ll be working away, looking at my deadline board, feeling a little frantic, and the bell will ring. My shoulders sink away from my ears and the furrow on my forehead smooths and I breathe.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” I whisper before I return to my work.

Yesterday afternoon, as I was chopping vegetables at record speed and throwing them into the slow cooker in a desperate attempt to get dinner made before I had to run out the door, I heard the bell ring from a floor away, and I smiled. Suddenly my chopping became less manic and my breathing slowed and nothing seemed quite so urgent. In a short time the bell has gone from unnerving to comforting.

Obviously this kind of thing resonates with people. Just two days ago I posted a brief Facebook status update about my mindfulness bell experiment and the next thing I know it showed up in a blog post. In our chaotic and noisy world, people are hungry for whatever they can find that will bring them back to the still point, that center of calm in the midst of life’s storms.

The trick is to learn — eventually — to allow all those other noises in our lives to become mindfulness bells in their own right. When we become centered enough, through prayer and awareness and, well, mindfulness, evening the dinging and honking and beeping can become calls to calm.

Pick one of the noises you can’t turn off and make it your own mindfulness bell.

Every time you hear it, stop for a second and breathe deep. Maybe whisper a prayer or a word that calms you. Find that place of silence you crave.

Become the silence…

My mindfulness bell just rang downstairs. I’m not kidding. I think that’s a sign to end this post and have my silent meal before setting to work. Peace.

The Zen of snow shoveling

I just finished shoveling out our driveway. It started as an effort simply to get through the icy snow bank left by the plow at the end of the driveway so I could get the van out and pick up Noah from school. (I was afraid he’d get hit by a car or plow while walking home from the bus stop.) When I got home, I decided to continue where I left off and just kept shoveling.

We have a gas-powered snow thrower, although I have to admit that I’ve never used it. Dennis does all the snow throwing, and leaf blowing. I prefer the old-fashioned way — shoveling and raking. There is something very meditative about both chores. They are, in a sense, very zen. You shovel snow while snowflakes fall covering up the space you just cleared with more snow. Same thing with autumn leaves. If you’ve ever raked a yard in the northeast, you know that raking can be an exercise in futility. Your efforts are quickly lost in a swirl of brown and orange and red.

Noah was not so charmed by this zen twist on shoveling. He just stared at me with that 14-year-old look. So I tried another approach, as he struggled to help with the snow removal. I suggested that knowing how to shovel a driveway might come in handy if ever he had his own place and no snow thrower to get the job done. Still not impressed. Finally I gave him some pointers on the art of shoveling and told him he should take pride in his work. “In shoveling snow,” he asked, incredulous. Yes, even in shoveling snow. Or maybe, especially in shoveling snow.

So the driveway is clear. For now. It was a nice little exercise — mental and physical — on this day when I couldn’t get to the Y. But it’s even nicer to know that Dennis will be around to handle that big snow tomorrow.

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.

I find comfort in the fact that he carried on, following his path toward God, even when he was thrown off course by his humanness. I look at Merton and see holiness wrapped in weakness, and isn’t that where most of us are? We’re all called to be saints, but oftentimes our humanity gets in the way. In Merton, we can see ourselves, trudging ever closer to God despite mistakes — some of them pretty major — and confusion and doubt.

Today, on the 42nd anniversary of his death by accidental electrocution in Bagkok, I am taking time to remember and reflect, but Merton is never far from my thoughts because so many of his words are constantly ringing in my ears.

Hanging next to my desk is this Merton quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

See what I mean? Comforting and yet challenging. I read those words and think, “Oh, good, Merton had no idea where he was going either.” Then I read a little more and think, “Oh, no, he trusted God completely. Can I do the same?” For me that’s a saintly role model, reminding me that I’m not alone but pushing me to go beyond my typical response and reach for something deeper, truer.

A couple of years ago, I received a wonderful blessing in the form of a silent retreat called “Merton in the Mountains.” By a lake in the low peaks of the Adirondacks I had one weekend of solitude and silence, a brief glimpse into Merton’s way of life. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was downright difficult and more than a little frightening — to give up my voice, to sit and wait for God while trying to throw off the monkeys of worry and doubt and pride and ambition. Merton knew those same feelings, and yet he continued to return to the silence, the solitude because that is where he knew he’d find God.

Another quote from Thoughts in Solitude:

To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly traveling from one geographic possibility to another. A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment on, solitude is not potential — it is actual.

But perhaps the quote that always calls me back, the one that echoes in my head, is the quote below. It’s a constant reminder of my inability to ever know God if I try to make him in my own image:

God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.

We know him better after our minds have let him go.

The Lord travels in all directions at once.

The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us.

Merton reminds me that I still have a shot, even when I don’t get it right on a pretty regular basis. Merton, with his beautiful and powerful words, gives me something to hold onto when God feels very far away.

Thomas Merton, pray for us.

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