Working the System

I guess I knew it — that some people work the system.

Back in the long ago days when I was a struggling single parent, I knew another single parent who didn’t struggle nearly as much. She actually had a pretty sweet deal. She collected welfare — it was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children back then — for her family of four, but didn’t actually use the monthly check to provide for her children. She had dumped the children with her mother, and lived in our college town as a single woman free of encumbrances.

And later, when I was working one of those low-paying state jobs that don’t have the cachet, salary or benefits professionals in the state system enjoy, I worked with another single parent, a women who had five children. She lived across the state line in Minnesota and commuted 80 miles a day — 40 each way — because South Dakota’s neighbor had such generous welfare benefits. I have to confess, I didn’t have much sympathy for the demands this placed on her because she was a staunch Republican, opposed to paying taxes, but not opposed to milking the system she denigrated.

Since I, too, had been a welfare mom while going to college — and to the best of my knowledge, did not abuse the system — I tended to think of these women as exceptions to the rule. I assumed that most welfare recipients were like me, using benefits as a stopgap measure while attempting to craft a better life for themselves and their children.

Working at the convenience store has made me wonder, though — but not just about those who receive welfare. A recently-hired co-worker makes me aware that there are other ways to work the system.

The individual in question dropped off an application when I was working. Since supervising employees is one of  my job responsibilities — though the manager does all the hiring — I took the liberty of a conducting a cursory interview. He was articulate and definitely overqualified for the position — but so am I. He indicated a desire to work a specific shift for family reasons — something I understand.

The manager spoke with him and decided to offer him the position. After being hired, the individual kept moving back his start date for one reason or another. Since starting, he has been late for work every single day (not an exaggeration for emphasis, the simple truth), has not learned the most basic tasks (such as stamping the back of checks), makes excuses for not doing the work assigned to his shift even though there’s ample time to do it (which I know from personal experience,  having worked it), wants to set his own schedule rather than working assigned days, and has managed to irritate everyone with whom he’s worked thus far.

I had the uncharitable thought that he wants to get fired, so he can collect unemployment. But, I’m not the only one who has had that thought. Several of the individuals with whom I work have the same impression.

I have to admit, that approach to employment completely baffles me. Yes, I left a job last fall when my employers gave me an ultimatum — I could take a job no one else wanted or I could leave their organization. Since I knew I was ill-suited for the position and knew the negative impact it would have on my mental and physical health, I respectfully declined the transfer. Yes, I attempted to collect unemployment.

But, I didn’t quit to collect unemployment. I quit because it was the only viable option for me at that point. I think the fact I now work at a convenience store testifies to my willingness to work.

That is not to say I don’t understand the allure of life without the demands of work. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that unemployment gave me, the freedom to spend time with my grandchildren, the freedom to help people who were in need of companionship or other assistance, the freedom to spend hours in prayer  and to write. I could easily build a full and satisfying life if I didn’t have to work.

But, I simply cannot understand working the system in order to avoid work. In the simplest terms possible, that’s stealing. How is it possible to take pride in stealing? How can you live with yourself if your livelihood is the  result of a lie?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that what they use, grows in them. At least, that’s how I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30). It’s a simple and obvious lesson. A woodworker who takes pride in his craft and continues to perfect it, will do remarkable work. One who’s haphazard and does little to improve his skills will have mediocre results. If the two are in business, the hardworking craftsman will prosper and the other will not.

In the same way that skills grow in us, attitudes grow in us. If we have an attitude which justifies working the system — or stealing — we soon develop a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we have little regard for others or the consequences of our actions so long as we get what we’re seeking.

In the long run, this is self-defeating. We fail to strengthen relationships, families or community ties by focusing on our needs rather than on the common good, and it’s only in healthy, loving, mutually-respectful relationships that we find what gives our life depth and meaning. Do those who work the system — whether by fraudulently collecting welfare, approaching employment as a path to unemployment benefits or avoiding taxes whenever and however possible — understand this?

Blind to Blessings

I live!

I know. That doesn’t quite have the same resounding ring as “He lives!” or “Jesus Christ is risen today,” but having spent the last two days in bed with something extremely unpleasant, I can say with certainty that the road to wellness has resurrection qualities which would be foolish to overlook — especially considering the season.

When I woke this morning — well,  actually at 1:30 this afternoon — having slept for seven consecutive hours without having had my sleep disrupted with a bout of coughing that left me gasping for air, or a fear-filled race to the bathhroom before my bowels disgorged themselves, I was momentarily disoriented. I hadn’t slept that much in days. Rather, I’d been living in the neverland  of illness — fitful dozing interspersed with self-pity and bodily inconveniences.

I can’t say I was in perfect health when I woke. Even now, as I type this, I know I am  running on cold medicine and determination. As soon as the cold medicine wears off, the coughing, sneezing and congestion will undoubtedly return and my energy will flag, but at least I have this moment, this welcome, welcome moment. For the last couple days, cold medicine didn’t alter my symptoms in any discernable way whatsoever.  Because it makes a difference today, I am gratefully encouraged to believe I am on the road to recovery.

And so, after I indulged in a cup of coffee this afternoon, which soothed my sore throat, I vacuumed the carpet, did the dishes, stripped the sheets off my bed and started doing some laundry. For some reason, getting my house in order — chasing away evidence of my temporary incapacitation — seemed important to me. I needed some normalcy in my life.

As I did these things, I started thinking about the activities Jesus chose for his first appearances following his resurrection. He comforted Mary Magdalene; how often in that male-dominated world had he encouraged her to believe her discipleship was as important as that of his male followers? He taught two companions on the road to Emmaus; how often during his itinerant preaching career had he talked to followers as they traveled from one place to another? He built a fire to share breakfast with Peter and the others who had gone fishing with him; what are the odds that he’d done this before — maybe after spending a night in prayer while they fished?

Jesus chose to reveal himself in the normal, everyday activities in which he had engaged before his notoriety carried him to the cross. So often, we think that Christ is present among us only in the transcendent moments of life — moments when our faith lifts us on the wings of joy, or when, in the midst of suffering, we experience ineffable consolation. Even those of us who spend time in prayer on a regular, even daily, basis are guilty of failing to see Christ in all the mundane everyday experiences which make  our lives rich.

I’ve joked for weeks about my Easter miracle. Since the manager at the convenience store where I’m currently employed has difficulty staffing the graveyard shift, I’ve agreed to work this when necessary. I don’t have family to take into consideration and am a night owl by nature, so it’s not a problem for me. The minor hardship I experience comes from working on Saturdays until 2:30 or 3  a.m., unwinding for an hour or so before going to bed, and then getting up to attend 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday morning. Since I’m often a lector or Eucharistic minister, I can’t decide to simply sleep in and drive to Rapid City for a later Mass.

A couple weeks ago, I was so tired, I missed a step when I was leaving church after Mass. It was not a graceful fall. I went down hard, scraping up my knees, bruising the palms of both hands and jarring my back so that for the next couple weeks I hobbled around  like a woman twice my age. (Well, considering my age, maybe not “twice my age,” but definitely older.)

As I walked home from church, tears streamed down my cheeks faster than blood streamed down my shins. I had been a Eucharistic minister that morning and was wearing my black dress pants — my only pair of black dress pants. I didn’t even want to see what they looked like considering the way my knees felt. It didn’t really matter, because I knew I couldn’t afford to replace them, and I had no idea what I would wear for Holy Week services when I was scheduled to be lector. How could I stand at the ambo and lector during Holy Week in jeans?

When I got home, I took off my pants, cleaned my knees and palms, applied antibiotic cream and bandages to my knees, and then looked at my pants — and looked at my pants — and looked at my pants. Somehow, I’d managed to scrape up my knees without tearing my pants. They were a little dirty, but not damaged in any way.

For the next couple days, I pulled the pants out of the laundry basket several times to check them, because it seemed impossible to me that I had not torn the knees. I kept assuming I was just too tired to see the rip, but each time I saw the same thing. Black pants which were a little soiled at the knees but not damaged in any way. I began to think of that as my little Easter miracle.

But, in light of today’s insight, I find myself seeing those black pants as not just an Easter miracle, but an everyday miracle. How often in the normal course of our daily lives do we experience little miracles that we fail to appreciate? How often do we run into someone we’ve been thinking of? Find in the back of the cupboard the ingredient we needed to finish a meal? Start reading a book that has the answer to a question that had been haunting us?

How often does God protect  us from harm when we are feeling a little bruised by circumstances? Renew our strength with the golden glow of dawn after a dark night of the soul? Lift us with the wings of anticipation when we’d thought things were falling apart around us?

Just as his disciples failed to recognize Jesus following the resurrection, I suspect we all fail to see him at work in our lives. But he’s undoubtedly there, in all the ordinary, everyday blessings we easily take for granted — like good health or black dress pants to wear to church. Maybe, occasionally, he’ll remove our blinders so we can see him.

Don’t Cling to Me

(Note: This was the closing presentation for the retreat. Essentially, it’s about the commission God gives each of us when we experience healing through him.)

(John 20:11-18)

Now  it’s time to go out into the world. We’ve looked at the way Christ healed when he walked among us as a man. We’ve looked at some tools that we can use to open our hearts and minds to the healing he wants to bring into our lives. So, now what?

To close, we’re using a Resurrection story that brought healing into my life at a very painful juncture. If you don’t mind, I want to read this one myself.

A READING FROM THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN  (John 20:11-18)

The year my youngest daughter entered her senior year in high school, I began to examine my options for the future. For more than 20 years, the defining role in my life was motherhood. I didn’t know who I would be without a child under my roof. Because my faith life had  begun to deepen, I felt that what I did needed in some way to be service-related or related to the Church.

Then I learned the religious order I wanted to enter when I was in high school had voted to take older women and divorced women. I knew immediately that I needed to explore that possibility. From the beginning, it felt right to me. When I visited their convent, it felt like home. When I attended the monthly retreats, everything covered was consistent with the way the Spirit was working in my life. The vocations director didn’t experience that same sense of rightness. From the beginning, she encouraged me to consider other options, but I just thought I needed to prove myself to her and didn’t really listen.

In the end, after nearly two years in formation, I did withdraw but it was very difficult and I grieved. The individual who acted as a spiritual director to me during that time was an Episcopalian priest that I had met about a year earlier. We bonded because we shared a lot – we were both raised Catholic, both divorced, she had been a journalist as I was at the time, we both felt called by God to serve. We had gotten in the habit of meeting on a regular basis to talk about our spiritual journeys, so it was natural for me to turn to her.

On that occasion, Linda invited me to meet her in her office. Prior to that, we’d always met for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, so I’d never been to her church. After we talked for a while, and I’d shared my pain with her, Linda took me into the sanctuary of her church and we approached the altar. I wasn’t sure what she had in mind, but I was hurting so much, I was open to anything that might lead to healing.   At the foot of the altar, she told me to turn around, and as I did so, I saw the stained glass window she saw every Sunday from the altar – Jesus with Mary Magdalene at the resurrection. Then she read to me the passage I just read and invited me to stay there as long as I wanted and to visit the church as often as I wanted so that I could meditate on Christ’s presence in my grief and in my life.

Grief is another of the wounds we experience in life. Sometimes we lose people we love. Sometimes, as was the case for me, our loss isn’t about another person at all, but is about something we valued. This passage said much to me in my grief and I want to share a few of those thoughts with you in closing.

First, just as Mary didn’t recognize Jesus, we may not recognize God at work at painful times in our life. I’m not going to expand on that, because the subject of human suffering is beyond what we have time for here. I’m just going to say that God is with us in our pain. Just as Mary continued to seek Jesus when Peter and John went back to the other disciples, we need to be tenacious in seeking him when we hurt. The discipline I bring to my prayer life now, grew out of that time in my life. Before that, I had a tendency to be hit-or-miss with prayer depending upon how I felt and what was going on in my life. But, I can’t do that anymore.

Second, just as Jesus called Mary by name, we will find that the comfort and healing we receive will be personal.  The odds are pretty good that God being God, he will work in our lives in ways we don’t expect. But if we are open to the way he wants to work, we will see that those things which helped us heal, which helped us move past our pain, were tailor-made for us. In my case, Linda inviting me to meditate in her church was part of the healing. Another part was the awesome prayer community I had within the religious order I had sought to join. After I withdrew from formation, the sisters indicated they wanted to continue meeting with me regularly as we had during formation, and we made a weekend retreat together once a month for as long as I lived in Pierre. The wisdom and support of those incredible women helped me gain perspective on what had happened and allowed me to maintain a relationship with the congregation even though I did not take vows. Finally — and this may sound strange, but God can be strange sometimes –I found comfort in doing plein air painting. A couple years earlier I’d had a burnout job and had quit painting, but suddenly I found I couldn’t paint often enough. When I was painting, I felt at one with the Creator and that feeling of oneness with God  slowly led to a feeling of wholeness within. That’s what I mean about comfort being tailor-made.

Finally, this is the thought I want to leave you with:  After Jesus comforted Mary with his presence,  he gave her a commission. “Don’t cling to me. Go tell the others what has happened.” God’s love for us is a great gift. The healing he brings into our lives is a great gift. But, it’s not just for us. The gift is for us to share, to call us into community so that we can be a healing presence in the lives of others.

That may involve the simple act of touching someone as Jesus touched the leper. In our society, there are a lot of touch-deprived people, people who  don’t have friends or family members to hug them in a loving way.

Your gift of presence may be listening to another person, really listening to them as Jesus listened to the woman with the hemorrhage. Too often when we’re in conversation with others, we’re not listening. We’re thinking about what we’re going to say.

You may be a healing presence in someone’s life by helping to lighten the burdens that bend them over. What you do doesn’t have to be momentous. I live in an apartment building with an elderly woman who is considered the apartment manager. This winter when it snowed, she would fret if the sidewalk wasn’t cleaned. The young man who was supposed to clean it worked out-of-town, so I’d do the sidewalks when he wasn’t available. It didn’t take long, but it comforted her enormously.

The important thing is to do it with a generous heart, to do it because God has poured out his love into your life and you want to send ripples of that love into the lives of others.

Hypocrites!

(Note: In this presentation, I talked about Lectio Divina, a contemplative prayer practice that is based on Scripture.)

(Luke 13:10-17)

By now, you may have guessed that an interesting thing happens when you use Scripture-based prayer in your life – the Word of God takes up life within you. You’ll find you don’t have to be sitting down to prayer or have a copy of the Bible in front of you to begin meditating on or mulling over a passage of Scripture. You’ll be driving down the road or working and a story or phrase will come to mind, and you’ll find yourself spontaneously opening to what it might have to say to you.

When you think about it, it isn’t all that surprising that God works in this way. He tends to be pretty consistent in some ways. He created us so that those activities we practice regularly become part of us. An athlete practices so that he or she can compete without thinking about every move. A musician practices so that he or she can become one with the piece of music and can allow it to flow freely without intention. Similarly, when we make a practice of using Scripture-based prayer, the living word of God becomes part of us and slowly, bit by bit, it starts to reshape us.

Unfortunately, in my case, the shaping process is more like water dripping on stone than like the hand of the potter working with malleable clay, but over time, I have come to trust in the slow work of God. And because I do see that it is the Word of God, as well as the love of God that I have experienced through the sacraments and through those who love him which are shaping me, I want to share one more Scripture-based prayer practice. This morning we looked at Ignatian contemplation, which uses our imagination to lead us into  a more intimate relationship with God. Then, we looked at meditative writing, which uses writing to lead us into a more intimate relationship with God.

Now, let’s look at Lectio Divina. I first learned about Lectio from this small book by a Trappist monk named Basil Pennington: An Invitation to Centering Prayer. It was the first Scripture-based prayer practice that I encountered and it radically changed the way in which I prayed. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said it changed my relationship to Scripture and my relationship with God as well.

Before I encountered Lectio, I’d studied Scripture and I’d memorized passages, but I’d never meditated on it. It wasn’t alive to me. I saw it as a puzzle I needed to figure out, as a rulebook I needed to apply to my life, as a story I needed to know, but essentially it was all about me doing something. Intellectually, I knew God could speak to me through his Word. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically says, “In the sacred books [of Scripture], the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them” (CCC 104). However, that knowledge didn’t translate into experience.

The interesting thing is that I didn’t know what I was missing until after I had made Lectio part of my spiritual life for several months. Before I learned about Lectio, I felt intimacy with God when I received the Eucharist, but my prayer life was kind of dry. I prayed because I knew the discipline of prayer was important, but it didn’t really nourish me very much. I might be intellectually stimulated by a Bible study or an inspirational book that I read, but I didn’t experience friendship with God in prayer. With 20/20 hindsight, I think it’s probably because  I did all the talking. I didn’t really know how to listen to God. Lectio very intentionally creates a place to listen, and when we start listening as well as talking,  we also learn to simply be in the presence of God which adds another degree of intimacy to our relationship with him.

I’m going to explain it as Basil Pennington explains it in his book, primarily because it’s the way I practice it. If you already practice Lectio and do it differently, that’s OK. The goal is to meet God in Sacred Scripture. The specific steps to getting there are no more important than the route you take to get from Custer to Pierre. The only suggestion I would make is to be consistent. Don’t do it one way one day and another way the next. Consistency enables us to recognize the whisper which is God’s voice.

The first step is to read slowly and attentively a passage of Scripture. Maybe you want to choose a book of the Bible and slowly work your way through it, reading a short passage each day. Perhaps you have a spiritual director who suggests you meditate on a specific passage. Maybe you want to choose one of the daily readings, which you can find in the Magnificat, in the bulletin, on the website for the USCCB and probably in half a dozen other places as well. I use a devotional called Sacred Space, which is published annually by the Irish Jesuits. It includes a portion of one of the daily readings each day.

While you’re reading, you listen with what St. Benedict called “the ear of your heart.” You are essentially opening yourself so that God can draw your attention to a word or a phrase. Sometimes, you may find you read the same passage two or three times until your awareness is attracted to a specific portion of the passage. It’s important to understand that this is not an intellectual selection process. You’re not reading so that you can pick out the main idea for a quiz. You are listening for God to say, “Here, right here. This is my gift for you today.”

When you do this over time, you will discover that even if you read the same passage on two or three consecutive days, which you may do if a spiritual director has you meditating on a passage, God will give you different words on different days. This is not a place where there is one right answer. This is a place where the richness of the living word is revealed in an intimate way to you.

Once God has revealed to you his word of the day, you move to the next stage, which is meditation. In describing this stage of Lectio, Basil Pennington makes reference to Nativity story in Luke’s gospel. After the shepherds visit, Luke writes, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting upon them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). That’s what this kind of meditation is. It’s a  gentle turning things over in our minds and hearts, allowing God’s word to pick up associations in our lives.

One thing I’ve discovered is that if God is working with me on something, various Scripture passages will lead me to consider the same idea over and over from different angles. For example, when I opened last night, I talked about expectations – about letting go of expectations so that God can work in our lives. When I was meditating on this passage, the same idea came up. The woman bent over by the burden of her expectations about what life should be. The leader of the synagogue outraged because Jesus did not act as he was expected to act. I’ve figured out by now in my head that God wants me to let go of my expectations about something in my life so that he can do something new, but the fact this motif continues to show up in Lectio suggests to me there’s an even deeper lesson regarding expectations that I need to learn or there’s a way in which I need to live this lesson to which I’m still not open.

Meditation is followed by prayer. This movement from meditation to prayer is almost always spontaneous. You’ll be mulling  over the word or phrase God gave you and the next thing you know, you’ll be talking to God about it.

This prayer is not like intentional intercessory prayer or the prayers of the church. This prayer is more like a conversation. God has spoken to you with his word. You’ve thought about what he said, and you’re responding. Basil Pennington compares it to the consecration of bread and wine during Mass. He writes, “In this consecration-prayer, we allow the word that we have taken in and on which we are pondering to touch and change our deepest selves. Just at the priest consecrates the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist, God invites us in Lectio Divina to hold up our  most difficult and painful experiences to God, and to gently recite over them the healing word or phrase God has given us.”

This leads to contemplation, which is just resting in the presence of God. This is a wordless  place. It’s like a good hug from someone after having had a good conversation with them. It doesn’t have to last long, if stillness is hard for you, just a minute or two will suffice, but it is important not to just rush away from this experience. If stillness is easy for you or natural for you, then you can stay for as long as you would like.

One final comment I would like to make about Lectio is that if you doubt insights you gain, you can use the same criteria for evaluation you use with meditative writing. Ask God for external confirmation. Consider whether or not your insight is consistent with the teachings of the Church and what you know about God. Consider whether your insight leads to greater intimacy with God and enables you to better reflect his love into the world.

Who Touched Me?

(Note: My second presentation on Saturday morning was about meditative writing.)

(Matt. 9:18-25; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:42-48)

When I was reflecting on this passage of Scripture, one question kept coming back to me: Why didn’t the woman with the hemorrhage ask Jesus for healing? Why was she so furtive about it?

It’s important to listen to the questions that come to mind when we hear Scripture proclaimed or when we read it ourselves. Those questions can be God knocking at the door, attempting to open our hearts and our minds to a new way of looking at a situation which is troubling us or a new insight which will bring healing into our lives. Sometimes, just reflecting on the questions themselves can help us to grow in the Spirit so that we can better reflect him into the world.

Meditative writing is one way that we can do this through exploring reflectively the questions which arise when we encounter the Word of God. Father Francis Dorff, a Norbertine priest and spiritual director, has written a lovely book on this: Simply SoulStirring: Writing as a Meditative Practice. I want to hit on a few high points of this practice before I again illustrate with an example and give you a chance to try it.

First and foremost, meditative writing is NOT like the kind of writing you learned when you were in school. It’s not about spelling and punctuation. It’s not about sentence structure and paragraph styles. The goal of meditative writing is NOT to put together a piece of polished prose for an audience. Rather, this is very private writing, more akin to keeping a journal than any other kind of writing you might  do. Similarly, it’s also not about writing down thoughts or insights you have while praying, because the writing itself is a form of prayer, a way of drawing near to God.

Father Dorff recommends having an uncluttered place set aside for meditative writing. He says finding or creating a place like that can help us focus, and that just going there sometimes can help us get started. I, personally, do have a desk in my apartment set aside that I use only for prayer, reading Scripture and meditative writing. But I have also found that having a special notebook for this kind of writing is just enough to get me started. When I travel – for example, to visit my granddaughters – I will take one of the icons I have, my prayer notebook and the current copy of the Magnificat.  That is enough  to set the stage for meditative writing.

Father Dorff also recommends choosing a specific time and using it consistently. This doesn’t necessarily have to be daily. Perhaps Saturday morning is the only time you have to devote to this kind of prayer or maybe it’s a practice you will use only on retreat. You have to find what works for you. I, personally, use it almost daily, but I like to write, so that’s not surprising.

Finally, he recommends using tools you are comfortable with. You don’t want to go out and buy an expensive journal you will be afraid to use. You want something you are comfortable with, something that feels like a friend to you. Maybe you want to try a spiral notebook or maybe you want a bound journal. Maybe you prefer college-ruled paper or paper that doesn’t have lines on it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as you’re comfortable with it. I like to buy relatively inexpensive notebooks and decorate the covers myself. I also like them to be relatively small so that I don’t feel guilty starting a new one if I feel a new movement in my life.

The same is true about writing implements. Write with something that feels good in your hand. I, personally, hate Bic pens – or any writing implement that doesn’t have a smooth flow of ink. I use G-2 gel pens or Pilot pens. I like the way they feel in my hand. I like the way the ink flows from the tip of the pen. I like the fact they come in colors so I can change colors for emphasis or to mark something that’s important. That’s my preference. You have to find what works for you. I do recommend keeping a writing implement you like with your prayer journal so that when you sit down to write, you can write. If you have to look for something to write with, you might decide not to do it at all.

Finally, there’s no one approach. Maybe you want to write a letter to God or one of the participants in a Scripture passage. Maybe what you read will make you want to write a letter to a deceased person. Maybe you will find, for example, after reading the story of Joseph in Genesis, that you want to write your spiritual biography. As I said earlier, sometimes what I write is like Ignatian contemplation. Sometimes it’s like Lectio Divina. You just never know. The best thing to do is to simply be open. Father Dorff recommends a number of books with writing exercises that can be helpful. I don’t have all of them, but I do have a few you can look at while you’re here. I do ask that you not take any of them with you. They are all currently available at Amazon.com, so you can have any one that interests you within a week. Just write down the title and the author.

While Father Dorff does recommend a number of books on journal writing because they contain some good exercises, journal writing is different than meditative writing in one very significant way. In journal writing, you want to know yourself better and you want to reflect on your life. In meditative writing, you want nurture a more intimate relationship with God, you want to be receptive to what the Spirit is doing in your life.

So, regardless of what approach you use, you need to begin by putting yourself in the presence of God. Make a sign of the cross. Take a few deep breaths. I usually begin with prayer. Since I do my meditative writing in the morning, I usually start with the Morning Prayer in of the Magnificat.

Then, take a passage of Scripture or something else that you find to be inspirational and read it slowly and prayerfully. For a while, I was going  through a book of prayers called Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits. Whatever inspires you is a good starting place for meditative writing. Read the passage two or three times until something captures your attention. In this way, it’s like Lectio. What you are doing is opening yourself to the whisper that is God’s voice, to the movement of the Spirit stirring the waters of your consciousness. What captures your attention will be your starting point.

You don’t start writing with a goal or a conclusion. You write down the thought or phrase that comes to mind and then you write down the next thought or phrase that comes to mind and then you write down the next so that one sentence, one phrase, one word at a time something begins to emerge. If I were to compare this kind of writing to another life experience, it would be to playing with a child or improvisational jazz. When you play with children, you have to be flexible and be willing to go where their imaginations lead. In the same way, improvisation with jazz unfolds on the spot. That’s the way this is

The important thing is to be really open, and to be very humble. If we enter this expecting to come up with clever insights, we’re not going to get very far, because it will be about us and not about God. Meditative writing really needs to lead us to God. That being said, sometimes you will gain an insight that does thrill you and you’ll have to share it. That’s part of the process, too.

When I first started doing this, I again was very skeptical, just as I was with Ignatian contemplation. I kept thinking, “Is this wishful thinking or is it God speaking to me?” Somewhere along the line – and I’m really sorry that I don’t remember where I found this – I came across a way of discerning whether God was at work. I put the three tips in the study guide, but I’ll review them briefly.

  • First, there’s often external confirmation. It’s absolutely uncanny, but it actually happens. You will write something that moves you, and you’ll run across it someplace else. Or the priest will a give a homily in which he makes the same point. A recent example from my life: I realized with my job hunting, I was using a scattered approach and needed to be more focused. I really wanted to discern God’s will in all of this, so I sat down and did this Ignatian decision-making thing, and specifically considered whether or not I should be focusing my efforts on the Custer area. I’d been asking God to let me stay, but I thought I might be selfish in that desire. So I’m using meditative writing with Ignatian decision-making thing, and the phrase “rich soil” keeps coming to mind. In the end, I feel I need to focus my job search on the Custer area. I flip on my computer, go to the Loyola Press website for my three-minute retreat. Lo and behold! The Scripture passage for the day was: “Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold.” (Matt. 13:7-9). I interpreted that as definite confirmation.
  • The second thing is that the insight you gain will be consistent with what you know about God and what the Church teaches. If your meditative writing leads you to think you should steal $5,000 from your boss and take a vacation, that’s probably not inspired by God.
  • Finally, the insight will lead you to greater intimacy with God and will enable you to better reflect his love into the world.

So let’s take this back to the Scripture we’re considering at present. As I said in the beginning, as I reflected on this passage I kept coming back to one question: Why? Why didn’t she just ask? Why was she so furtive?

Jesus didn’t turn people down. He healed wherever he went. He healed the blind, the mute, the crippled. He healed lepers and cast out demons. He even healed in the synagogue on Sunday and healed those who were not Jewish. He had come to bring the good news of God’s great love for his people, and that love poured out of him in the form of healing wherever he went. So why did this woman creep up behind him, reach out and touch his garment, and then slip away into the crowd? It didn’t make sense to me, so for nearly a week, I just opened myself to that question.

As I said before, meditative writing is very much a step-by-step process. One word, one phrase, one idea leads to the next. Because I meditated on this over a period of days, I’m not going to read everything I wrote. I’m just going to hit some of the high points on my search for an answer. I’ll warn you in advance, I ended up in a place totally unrelated to the question!

I started by reflecting on her suffering – and the length of time she had suffered. Twelve years. For twelve years she had been unclean, untouchable. I’m guessing she wasn’t married, because she couldn’t sleep with a man. That was forbidden. In the book of Ezekiel, we see how seriously that offense was taken. “Thus, the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their land, they defiled it by their conduct and deeds. In my sight, their conduct was like the defilement of a menstruous woman.” (Ez. 36:16-17).

If she wasn’t married, where was her place? I’m guessing the only work she could do involved those tasks that would make individuals unclean, such as preparing the dead for burial. This must have been very difficult for her. How many of us live for more than a decade alienated from others for something over which we have no control? Mark’s gospel said she spent everything in an effort to be healed and suffered greatly as a result. I began to understand why she acted in such a furtive manner. I could almost hear her mother telling her to accept her lot in life. I could almost hear the neighborhood women gossiping about the poor fool willing to try anything to get a man. I could hear her brothers telling her that instead of wasting her money on charlatans, she should contribute that money to household expenses. I began to suspect she was furtive, because she didn’t want anyone to know she hadn’t completely given up hope. That brought to mind the poem which was part of an Advent prayer I incorporated into my daily devotions during Advent a couple years ago. In the poem, we see both hope and the fear of hoping; we see how our sinfulness kills something within us and how rebirth will make demands on us.

PRAYER FOR HOPE

 O God, we dare not place our hope in you / because we have no hope to place. / We have forgotten mercy, like the dew; / we have lost sight of days of grace. / Our heart’s bowl brims with hollow emptiness. / Our dreams have vanished like the smoke / of incense burned to gods of faithlessness / upon an altar stone that broke.

 O God, you have stirred up the darkened heart / with promises of light to come. / The embers of our cold hearth shift and start / a flicker that may yet become / the fire we fear because we shy from burns / our soul once suffered at the hands / of our own treachery. If life returns / for us, we dread rebirth’s demands.

 O God, ignore our plea for cold despair, / its ashes undisturbed, its chill / unwarmed by any hint borne on the air / by unseen angels, crying still / that promises are kept. Grant us instead / that small perturbing flick of flame / that wakens even in the living dead / just hope enough to call your name.

 “If life returns for us, we dread rebirth’s demands.”

The first demand on that woman was to tell Jesus what she had done. At that point in my meditations, my question changed. Why did Jesus do that to her? This is where more than a week of meditation led me:

“Because Jesus isn’t just a person. He is Christ who is present in his Church. It’s together we are the Body of Christ. This poor woman had been untouchable for 12 years, marginalized and probably lonely beyond bearing. Christ wanted to bring her back into the fellowship, into community.

“When Jesus felt the power go out of him, he felt that loneliness. It wasn’t a shoulder that bumped him, it was a hand closing for a moment on his garment and then letting go. A child would have tugged on the tassel to get his attention. The person who let go, he knew, didn’t believe she had the right to ask for his attention.

“He wanted her to know that in his eyes, she did have that right. He wanted to hear what she had not been able to say to anyone. He wanted her to know that her story meant something to him. And he wanted her to know that in reaching out to him, in allowing hope to overcome the barrier created by those who had ridiculed her efforts, she had ultimately placed her faith in God who loved her dearly.”

When I stepped away from my prayer table that day, I felt so incredibly humble. How many times have I failed to listen to someone’s story, have I failed to hear what was in their hearts? We all need to be heard, and if I am to be Christ for others, I need to listen.

I wasn’t expecting that to come out of this Scripture. Not at all. Very often, that’s what happens with meditative writing. We find ourselves in places we never expected to go. 

 

Tell No One

(Note: The retreat I helped to lead on Friday and Saturday was on healing. The passages of Scripture were based on the following passage from a book by Sr. Marie Schwan called COME HOME: A PRAYER JOURNEY TO THE CENTER WITHIN:

The admission of our woundedness is not a matter for self-denigration, but simply the recognition that we are creatures, that all of us carry within us the frailty as well as the majesty of being human beings created in the image and likeness of God.

 “In the gospel, it is the leper who admits his leprosy, the woman who acknowledges her hemorrhaging, the bent over woman who could not deny her condition, the blind man who cried out for healing, who met and experienced the compassion of Christ. For us, too, it is an incredible grace and gift to know what it is in our lives that keeps us from being centered in Christ, that keeps us from living our lives to the full.”

My partner talked about the passages themselves and I talked about three Scripture-based prayer practices. The first is Ignatian Contemplation.)

(Matt. 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16)

Does the irony of this strike anyone else? Tell no one.

John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-2)

And yet, here we are, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry – at least according to Mark’s gospel – and he is telling a leper who has been cleansed to tell no one. The Word says, “Don’t talk about it.”

Once Dave and I chose the Scripture passages for the retreat, I began to meditate on them. I did do a little research, but mostly I just asked God to open my heart and my mind so that he could speak to me. In his book, What Makes Us Catholic, Thomas Groome says, “we will never exhaust [Scripture’s] potency for life. Our most careful and creative interpretations notwithstanding, human words about God’s words will never be the last word.” He encourages us to “rediscover [the Word] with freshness and create new possibilities out of it.” That’s what meditation can help us to do. It can help us rediscover passages of Scripture we know so well that we really don’t even have to listen when they are proclaimed. Meditation can help us discover the possibilities it has to create in our lives new possibilities. And so this morning, I’m going to ask you to remember that the word of God is the living word. I’m going to ask you to remember that it’s what he uses to speak to us. And I’m going to ask you to explore this passage using Ignatian Contemplation.

If you attended the Advent retreat with Susan Safford, the diocesan vocations director, you are familiar with this because she introduced it on Friday night using the parable of the prodigal son. But, for those who weren’t there or are unfamiliar with the prayer practice, I want to give a little background. In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains it this way, “In Ignatian contemplation, you ‘compose the place’ by imagining yourself in a scene from the Bible … and then taking part in it. It’s a way of allowing God to speak to you through your imagination.”

Father Martin had not been incredibly active in the Church when he first began to explore the possibility of becoming a priest – a Jesuit, no less  — and the first time he was asked to do this by his spiritual director, he was skeptical. In explaining this method he shared his first reaction: “When I first heard about this method in the novitiate, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Using your imagination? Making things up in your head? Was everything imagined supposed to be God speaking to you? Isn’t that what crazy people think?”

After speaking with his spiritual director, he began to see it differently. He wrote: “Using my imagination wasn’t so much making things up, as it was trusting that my imagination could help to lead me to the one who created it: God. That didn’t mean that everything I imagined during prayer was coming from God. But, it did mean that from time to time, God could use my imagination as one way of communicating with me.”

I, personally, use meditative writing as part of my prayer practice. We will be exploring that together a little later. Sometimes what I write is like the meditation portion of Lectio Divina, which we will also be looking at later, but sometimes I find that it’s more like Ignatian Contemplation. What I’d like to do now is share one of the meditations that I had on this passage of Scripture. I do this because of the challenges I faced when I was attempting to learn this spiritual technique. I’m a concrete thinker. I need to see how things work to understand them. I really struggled when I was attempting to learn meditative writing and Ignatian Contemplation and other spiritual practices which are now an integral part of my prayer life. I needed examples so that I understood how these various practices worked, so what I’m about to read is simply an example. I offer it to you as a way of empowering you to enter into the Scripture in an open and nonjudgmental way. I say ‘nonjudgmental’ because  I first started doing this, I had a tendency to think, “This is really stupid,” which effectively prevented God from communicating with me through this practice.

I want to emphasize that each person’s experience with a passage of Scripture will be unique and personal. You may find yourself that each time you go back to a passage of Scripture, it speaks to you in a new and different way. There is no definitive understanding when it comes to this practice, only what God wants to say to you at that moment.

With Ignatian Contemplation, you start by choosing a passage of Scripture, and then you begin to experience it with the five senses: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? And then you enter into it and let it unfold. Surprisingly, by doing this, you sometimes do gain insights you might not have had otherwise.

So, when I was meditating on this passage, I imagined the early morning sun casting a golden glow across the landscape as Jesus and his entourage left the Galilean village in which they had spent the night. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so I have no idea what it might have smelled like, so I imagined it smelled like western South Dakota in a drought, when even mornings smell dusty because there is no dew to freshen the air. Everyone around Jesus was talking about the healings that had occurred the night before. Nobody was really listening to anybody else, and Jesus was creating a little personal space for himself by ignoring them as much as possible. I knew he just really, really wanted to be alone to pray. As I was watching Jesus, walking along with a stick and his head bent down, I suddenly realized I was a doubter in the midst, waiting for him to slip up.

This is what I wrote:

“I had no idea what you meant when you said, ‘For this purpose have I come.’ In truth, I was there for the magic show. I know; that’s not what you called it. But, I have to admit, I didn’t see it as much more than that. I really wasn’t the religious type. Yeah, I went through the motions. If I didn’t … well, my mom, my neighbors, my brothers … it wasn’t worth the hassle.

“And, as long as we’re on this truth thing, I really didn’t pay any attention to you in the synagogue. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Those friends of yours went around telling everyone how great you were, talked about your teaching. But, I was more interested in the miracles they talked about. I wanted to see one myself, and I wanted to figure out how you pulled it off. I figured one of your buddies just pretended to be sick and if I followed you around, I would catch you in the act.

“But then, Simeon threw himself down in front of you. I knew Simeon … well, I guess I still know him … but I also know better than to claim friendship with a leper. I know some people take food out to them, say they’re people, too, still claim kinship … but not me. We may have chased around the streets as boys and sat together over coffee when we became men … but when the priests saw the leprosy on him, it was ‘Bye-bye Simeon’ as far as I was concerned.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when Simeon threw himself in your way. Here I was … following you around trying to figure out your gimmick … and there was Simeon really believing in you. When I saw you reach down and take his face in your hands, I almost gagged. I had taken bread from your hands, and there you were, touching a leper. I knew I could be struck with the disease, too.

“Then Simeon looked into your face. I could see the rage and despair, the sense of futility and abysmal loneliness melt from his. ‘Be made clean,’ you said, and I knew the numbness had begun to leave him. I saw him shift with discomfort on the stones and smile in wonder.”

At that point, I stopped writing, because suddenly I understood why this man, this leper who was cleansed, could not keep his mouth shut. Not only would the leper have been cast out from the human community, he would have felt alienated from God. In Deuteronomy, when the army is being instructed regarding its conduct, the purpose for expelling those who are unclean is stated quite clearly: “Since the Lord your God journeys along within your camp … your camp must be holy” (Deut. 23:15). The logical conclusion is that those who are unclean are not among God’s chosen people, and cannot know God. But suddenly this man, this outcast, experiences Jesus as the Emmanuel, as God with us, as God with him, and the joy that bubbled up in him could not be contained. His joy wasn’t about the healing at all, though I’m sure he appreciated that. His joy was about experiencing personally the presence of God.

I realized at that point that the leprosy in our lives is not a physical disease, but the numbness we have come to experience in our technologically sophisticated, immediate gratification world that prevents us from experiencing the presence of God. That in turn made me look at the choices I was making in my life. Of course, I could elaborate on that, but my point isn’t to interpret this passage of Scripture for you. Rather, I want to invite you to enter into it yourself so that God can speak with you and to show you where he wants to bring healing into your life.

I am going to read this gospel again. What I would like you to do is enter into it. Don’t start by deciding who you are going to be. Start with your senses and allow your role in the scene to be revealed to you. Trust that God is working through your imagination.

Close your eyes and open in your imagination your senses. As I read, what do you see? As I read, what do you hear? As I read, what do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? Let the scene unfold in your imagination..

READ MARK 1:39-45.