Feb 24, 2015

My Fish Tail and Why I'm Glad I Didn't Give Up Chocolate for Lent

I felt a little guilty still eating chocolate during these 40 days of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. But I'm getting in plenty of penance anyway, thank you very much!

Never would I have imagined myself doing what I did today, and although it didn't take the self-discipline of denying myself every time I crave chocolate, it did take a different kind of dying to self.

The air was Florida-winter cool (high 60's/low 70's) with grey skies and not much wind as we started out on our afternoon walk. My elderly friend wasn't even grumbling about the cold and I was deciding that I could brave the brisk coolness without my left-behind jacket. As we passed his wife's car in the driveway, I did a double take. That car had been parked there for less than an hour and was covered with huge white splotches that usually mean one thing - so we looked up thinking to see an entire flock of type of huge evil birds roosting in the tall pines that towered above the driveway. Nothing up there. Upon closer inspection, the mess was unlike anything either one of us had ever seen before. And we live around sea gulls known for their...profusive digestive system. We continued our walk, debating what might have been the cause of such a mess so quickly.

As we made it to the end of the street and worked our way back home, the clouds broke letting the clear sky-blueness peek through to smile at us. Heading up the driveway, I looked down to check our path for anything that might trip up the wheels on my friend's walker and saw what at first looked like feathers and maybe bird guts - did some little bird get eaten by a big bad (but beautiful!) hawk? No, it looked like feathers but actually it was - a fish tail about two inches long. Just the tail. And a bunch of what was probably fish guts all over the driveway and dripping off the car. Oy!

I never have liked to get dirty. My gag reflex is so sensitive that I sometimes wore a surgical mask while changing my own children's dirty diapers. During my 20 year marriage, it was my husband who did any of the tasks that were heavy, dirty, or outside. Getting that car cleaned off would be all three, making it outside my normal realm of activities. But no one else was going to be home until after dark. I thought about how hard it would be to get dried fish guts off the car once it had baked a bit in our Florida sunshine (even on a cool day, the sun still has some power to it.)

If I hadn't loved that family all so much, I would have left it. But love compelled me to clean that car. The garden hose wasn't strong enough to get the guts off, so next step was a car wash. Guess "touchless" should have tipped me off that it might not do the trick, but hope springs eternal and I really wanted to be able to stay in the car while it got clean. But the touchless wash didn't do much and we still had a big sticky-looking problem.

Last choice was something I've never used. One of those self-service spray-it-yourself car wash service bays...Oy and double oy! What if I got all wet? What if - horrors!- fish guts splattered on me!!! But I would not give up. I sprayed fish guts (or whatever else it was) out of every possible crevice on that car. And water did spray on me, a fine mist blowing back in my face as I attacked from every angle. My "dress-up" black New Balance got damp, BUT no fish guts landed on me! Joy! I succeeded and did something I really didn't want to do - out of love.

My triumphant feeling was somewhat dampened when I turned on the wipers only to see a piece of fish flesh dangling. Aaarrrrgh! The fish had prevailed!

I thought about cleaning all the fish guts out of the driveway, but hey, I'm not a saint yet. I still have the image of the car's carnage in my mind...not sure my poor brain could have handled more stress at the end of a busy day. As it was, playing the Lumosity brain games on-line this evening were making me dizzy - that's a first! (That is supposed to help my brain get back to normal cognitively.)

I'm still not seeing quite straight...so let me leave you with this thought:

Whatever we do for the Lord, let us do it with all the love we can drag out of our poor little hearts. It doesn't matter what we "give up" or how we discipline ourselves if love does not compel us to "cloth the naked who we see, feed the hungry who we see," or in any other way lend a hand where we see it is needed when we have something to help console that need. After all, if we can't love God in these little things, will we ever even get a chance to love Him in "big" ways?

Wait - I have more to say....

As for me, I am just beginning to understand love...and it is definitely in the little things. Not sure I would have even cleaned up my own car without a bit of whining and complaining and trying to convince myself that the next rain would just whisk it away. But it is Lent and I willingly accept that car washing as a penance, a little gift of my love to our Lord. A fish tail wrapped in love with a bow tied to it.

May God be with you as you embrace your fish tails with love this Lent!

(And about the chocolate... The thought of chocolate and potato chips gave me great comfort as I drove home trying to get that scary image of carnage out of my mind. I do not in anyway regret not giving them up for Lent! Well, I might feel a little selfish, but hey, I'm coping with a brain injury here! Every day is still a challenge in many ways. I'm weak. God is my strength, but chocolate still has a special place in my heart.)

Feb 21, 2015

Lent: 40 Days of Love

I entered into Lent with a whimper and a whine this year. I didn't want to give anything up. I'm holding onto sanity by a thread - and that thread is Coke Zero, chocolate, and potato chips. If I give up any of those I may lose my will to live. So I thought I would instead add something...but I hadn't come up with something I felt I could commit to for 40 days, beyond getting my 14 year old daughter to agree to pray Evening Prayer with me on our matching Laudate Apps.

The day began with me whining myself out of going to Mass. I slept in trying to recover the time lost from being awakened at some strangely early and dark hour of the morning. I knew the squealing water pipes were just my upstairs neighbor turning on the shower, but it was so loud (and I am still so sound sensitive) I couldn't fall back asleep. By actual morning, I felt like a steam roller had rolled over me and there was a particularly busy day to get through. So I put Mass off to get an extra couple hours sleep, convincing myself I would go in the evening. Of course by the time I got home later, I felt like crying from brain exhaustion and didn't want to leave the house, even for Mass. Driving is one of the most tiring activities for my brain, I had done much more than usual out of necessity, and I just couldn't push through to drive anymore. And of course, it's not a holy day of obligation any way, so no sin in being absent. (Just a spiritual disappointment breaking through the brain exhaustion.)

Although I knew it was Ash Wednesday, I forgot that also meant it was a day of fast and abstinence. Lunch would not have been a chicken sandwich picked up via drive-through and eaten in the car if I had remembered. It was a disappointing when I remembered mid-afternoon. At least I was able to abstain from meat for dinner and ignore the siren call of a new box of  The World's Best donuts. And blame my post-concussion syndrome that I forgot to fast/abstain the entire day.

There was finally a breakthrough in my Lenten grumpiness when I read a post guest-written by Fr. Aiden Kieren over at Faith In Our Families and called "The Little Way of Fasting." That title caught my eye and I knew I had to read it, even though I was trying to quickly scan through my email before I began to do some writing. (Like maybe work on those forgiveness articles that stalled out when they overwhelmed my poor concussed brain?)

This excellent post by Fr. Kieren reframed Lent for me, and did so with the words of one of my favorite saints: 
"St Therese of Lisieux teaches us that the “Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ… On the contrary, the most brilliant deeds, when done without love, are but nothingness.” These words made me realise that the way I had been approaching the Lenten fast in the past was wrong. Lent is not a test of endurance. It is not even a test of discipline (even though we gain discipline as a by-product). Lent is a little test of LOVE. It is quality the Lord is interested in – not quantity."

How could I have forgotten the heart of the Little Flower's message to us? Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:2 wrote, "...if I am without love, I am nothing." I have not been considering Lent out of love. I have looked at it as one who is clinging to dead things, feeling as though so many good things have already been taken from me that I don't want to give up anything else. Clutching these dead things to me as false comfort. Instead I need to look at it again in love, rather than "a test of endurance." I might feel at the end of my rope of endurance, but I'm not at the end of my rope of love. I may not be able to give up all those dead things I'm clutching, but I can remember that they are dead things. I can remember that there is One who loves me and to whom I want to return love for love. The love is in the little things. The love is in the intentions, not the endurance. 

I will sacrifice what I can in my current condition, not looking at the "amount" as being too little or unworthy of being a "good-enough" sacrifice. I will sacrifice with love, lots of love, even if it is a very small sacrifice. My love won't even be a delightful feeling, it will just be my decision to open my heart to the One who has given me so much, in gratitude for the unearned love He has for me. And those things that "give me the will to live" - my Coke Zero , chocolate, and chips (which I still won't be giving up this Lent - at least not for an entire 40 days.) - those I will choose not to love more than I love God. It will be in some little way. But it will be a choice made in love.

Thank you, Fr Kieren! This Lent will now be 40 days of love for me and I will give up my burdened feeling of beginning an exhausting journey. 

Jan 27, 2015

The Prison of Unforgiveness

The Illusion of Control

"I don't want to forgive! Not forgiving makes me stronger!" I can still see her sitting there wearing unforgiveness as a mantle of protection, a look of distaste on her pinched face, a stiff manner contradicting her polite smile. She was like a turtle stuck during the vulnerable process of pulling itself back into its shell: not yet fully protected by the tough shell, but now unable to move away from the danger.

Sometimes we may feel the same way - that forgiving will make us weak. We may hold onto anger and bitterness because they give us the illusion of control over the uncontrollable – other people. The surge of emotion that comes from nurturing our anger, dwelling on our humiliation, or plots of revenge can make us feel powerful. We create a wall of negative emotions around ourselves like a hard shell, protecting us from further harm; keeping us safe. So we think.

That hard shell of protection distances us from others, not just the one we who did us wrong. In his book Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” When we lock ourselves away from hurt and vulnerability, we also lock ourselves away from love. Our hands are so full of bad feelings towards the perpetrator of our wound that we cannot reach them out to receive God's love and mercy into them. He longs to pour Himself out for us, but we have to approach Him with empty hands in order to receive such a precious gift.

It's Eating Us Up Inside
Holding on to unforgiveness poisons our souls. Even our secular society is realizing that unforgiveness really can "eat us up inside." Modern psychologists have studied both the positive effects of forgiveness and the negative effects of unforgiveness on physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic website even has an entire article devoted to forgiveness. They report that forgiveness can lead to: healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; stronger immune system, and improved heart health. 
See, God in His infinite Goodness has so much to give us in return for what we are willing to give up and hand over to Him! He won't send us away empty handed when we surrender our pain to Him and forgive. 

Ummm…God Kinda Says To
At every Mass, we pray the Our Father. At least once a week we are asking God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples, it is a gift from Him to us. Shouldn't we try to live it in our daily lives by forgiving those who hurt us?
Jesus was kind of big on forgiveness. Even from the cross He forgave those who had crucified Him and those who were mocking Him by praying, "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) What better example of forgiveness could He have given us to follow?
Forgiving others is part of how we live our faith. It is one of the ways we try to imitate the One who gave His life for us; a gesture to return our love to the God who loves us so abundantly; a token of our affection for our Creator, Father, and Savior. It's a little thing, but it can feel like a big thing when we are the one who has been done wrong! It can feel impossible, but we must remember that all things are possible with God who loves us. He wouldn't ask us to do the impossible.

We Wanna Be Like Jesus!
I've had a lot of time to think about forgiveness while I've been home recovering from post-concussion syndrome. We all have a choice. God gave us each the gift of free will and the power to forgive or not to forgive. We can choose to wear unforgiveness as a mantle, to withdraw into a protective shell isolating ourselves from God and love or we can choose to wrap ourselves in God's love and forgive.
We love God; we want to please Him. We want to respond to our Lord's admonition, "You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) We are created to be like Him - perfect. Jesus wouldn't have said it if it wasn't possible. He wasn't laughing behind His hand at the impossibility of our perfection. No, He was informing us as of our incredible calling, the calling to love as our heavenly Father loves. Forgiveness is part of this love. So although the words have sometimes stuck in my throat, not wanting to come out in prayer, I say them anyway. I choose to surrender my pain, indignities and hurt feelings to God. We can choose to forgive, even when it's hard to give up that mantle of imagined protection. We can choose to set ourselves free from the prison of unforgiveness.

In my next posts I will talk about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, common objections to forgiving, how to forgive, and moving deeper into forgiveness. I'm no theologian, so have no fear of treading too deeply into theory; we shall just continue walking together along the way.

Jan 3, 2015

Square Pegs, Round Holes, Blank Paper

"Lord, do with me what you will..." Sr Carmella of the Holy Eucharist, O.C.D. 

"I think of this new year as a white page given to me by [our] Father, on which He will write, day by day, whatever His divine good pleasure has planned. I shall now write at the top of the page, with complete confidence: Domine, fac de me sicut vis, Lord, do with me what You will, and at the bottom I already write my Amen to all the proposals of  [His] divine will. Yes, Lord, yes to all the joys, the sorrows, the graces, the hardships prepared for me, which You will reveal to me day by day. Grant that my Amen may be the Paschal Amen, always followed by the Alleluia, uttered wholeheartedly, in the joy of a complete gift. Give me Your love and Your grace and I shall be rich enough." 
Sr. Carmella of the Holy Spirit, O.C.D. via Divine Intimacy (My favorite book!)

"We plan and God laughs!" How many times have I heard that over the years? I've said the phrase myself, when things don't go as I've planned, with a bitter humor not-so-well-concealed beneath my forced laugh. Even though it's come out of my own mouth, I don't really like that particular saying. It gives me an image of God the Father rubbing His hand together in glee, cackling at my foolishness, poking fun at me. It gives me the image of a God who mocks me when I make mistakes, or thinks I'm  so stupid that I haven't figured out His perfect plan for me yet. It makes me afraid of what He may write on the pages of my life.

Despite my abundant inadequacies, I have finally grown to realize that even if our loving God does laugh at my feeble attempts of plans, it isn't in a mean way. There is no mocking or delight in my sufferings. He's not sitting up in Heaven ready to drop a big gavel and shout, "You've failed!" Our Good God is full of more love than we could ever imagine, the entire Bible is His love letters to us, He gives us His very self in the Eucharist. We can only begin to imagine the vastness of His love for us. All our Good God writes on the pages of our lives is for our ultimate good, or can be used for our ultimate good (which would be - Heaven!) if we cooperate with His grace.

If  Our Good Father does laugh, it is like a loving parent watching their toddler try over and over again to smash the square peg into the round hole instead of the square hole. The parent smiles knowing that as the child grows and develops, this almost impossible task will soon become a simple one. The doting parent finally tries to gently guide the toddlers hand to the proper combination, but the little one grabs the peg away shouting, "Mine!" The toddler, with her limited experience and knowledge of life, doesn't realize the big person is trying to help. She feels like the big person is trying to take away "Mine!" 

Sometimes maybe we feel that way with God, that He is taking away what we want, what we think we need. Our impulse can be to cry out, "Mine!"  But really, Our Good Father is just guiding our hands like that parent guiding the toddlers hand. We may fight Him just as that little one fights their parent, as we keep wedging that square peg into the round hole, over and over again, confused and frustrated that it doesn't work right. Sometimes we even become angry at Our Good Father because what He gave us doesn't work right! And for some of us, there may be a bit of a temper tantrum now and again, before we give in and accept Our Good Father's assistance.

I want to grow in holiness and wholeness, I want to be a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, to be of some benefit to society and to God, but sometimes it feels as though my world is falling apart and I am none of these. It's hard to say "Amen" when the day holds sorrow, pain or hardships, let alone to exclaim a heart-felt "Alleluia!"  as Sister Carmella of the Holy Spirit asked for the grace to pray each day, "in the joy of a complete gift."

It's easy to become so focused on what I want that I forget it's His handwriting on the pages of my life, to forget that right now is where He allows me to be, right where I am. I forget that He is the Author of Life, the Author of my life and that He is with me at every moment, through all the lines written by His Good Hands on each page. His writing, His love and grace, can make a happy ending to even the worst story. Our Good Father wants my ultimate good, your ultimate good, even during those moments when we feel totally bereft of Him; even during those moments when we feel like something we want is being pulled out of our hands. If God is emptying our hands it is only so He can place within them a more perfect gift.

Although my life didn't go as planned (by me) last year (especially the concussion part,) it did lead me to appreciate more deeply what a shear gift each day and each moment is to us. Therefore, I do gratefully rejoice, by the grace of God, for the gift of each of the days and moments of 2014, and with Sister Carmella of the Holy Eucharist I say, "...Amen and Alleluia!"

I also say, "Welcome 2015!" and pray,
  "Lord, do with me what You will. I trust and believe that you will fill the pages of each day this next year with what is best for me, Please help me to accept each moment "in the joy of a complete gift," remembering Your great love for me, and that because You long for me to join you someday in Heaven, each line you write on the pages of my life are a gift to lead me closer to You."
Amen, Alleluia!

P.S. Ummm...Lord, it would be nice if my brain problem would keep getting better... But take your time... I trust you...really I do! 

Nov 2, 2014

Of Returning, Brain Injuries, and the Little Way

It has been so long since I last posted here on Little Steps Along the Way that there is nothing to do but to take a giant step of courage and proceed. You may not remember signing up to receive these email updates, and it has been about a year since one would have landed in your inbox.

If you no longer want to have these little visits, please feel free to "unsubscribe" by clicking the link at the bottom of the email. The way I write may be different, and my words may not appeal to you. That's okay, you won't hurt my feelings to "leave" by unsubscribing.

*WARNING! Read at your own risk!*  
My writing may not be smooth (or may not even make sense) because my brain is not always quite right while it is recovering from it's little injury.

Life changes us, God changes us, His love and mercy change us. So much has bubbled up inside me, asking to be shared, but I have lacked the courage to "say it out loud" through my writing. My brain doesn't cease to compose and explain and examine, but rarely have the words come out of my fingers via pen and paper or computer keys, partly due to physical pain and partly due to a fear of the vulnerability that comes sharing oneself through the written word. As friends and family lifted the paralytic through the roof, so my friends and family have begun encouraging me to write, and I hear the Lord saying, "Take up your keyboard and write!" as He once commanded the paralytic to walk. This in no way guarantees the quality of my writing, so don't hold it against our Good Lord if my words don't make sense, annoy you, or are just plain boring. Instead, take an opportunity to offer it up for the Holy Souls this month.

So here's my story. Three weeks ago today I tripped over my own two feet and fell down, landing on my right side and bumping my head. It was enough of an impact to stun me and leave me with a variety of symptoms called post-concussion syndrome.  I have had severe headaches, dizziness, am quickly fatigued, vision disturbances, anxiety some interference with my speech when I have "over done it." There have been three emergency room visits (did I mention anxiety?) with two cat-scans (meow) a neurologist and an upcoming MRI, The cure - "brain rest." Limit TV, computer, reading, music, everything. Even music - a comfort and joy but now I can feel the notes as they seem to land in my brain, and although it is not extremely painful, it is quite disconcerting and in no way relaxing.

During this time my brain has not ceased to put words together (accept for the afternoon that it sang "lalalalalalalalalala" for so long that I thought I was losing my mind!) I have allowed these words to languish within - all the words and phrases and sentences and thoughts and reflections and praises of God. I have felt a growing compulsion to allow to these words to pour out through my fingers and into cyberspace that reminds me of Jeremiah 20:9 "I would say to myself, 'I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more,' but then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not do it."

And so here I am, still struggling along the little way, one day at a time, seeking His will, seeking to serve Him as He asks at the moment. This article is my small "yes" to Him today. It is my little gift to Him. I am picking up my mat and following Him one little step at a time.