Stop! Look! Listen!

I lead a retreat three years ago, in June 2016, about remembrance, and its place in our spiritual life. I opened the retreat by telling a story.

Storytelling lies at the heart of my approach to leading retreats. I learn about God through my life. I pray. I reflect on Scripture. And, as much as possible, I knead to Word of God into my life — to borrow an idea from French mystic Madeleine Delbrel. As a result, my life becomes the tool God uses to teach me and to draw me into a deeper relationship with himself.

That particular story began seven years earlier, and wound through life experiences and dreams — the nighttime kind, not the wanting-in-life kind. It ended with me reviewing an old prayer journal one Saturday morning and finding an entry that made me laugh out loud. I realized when I read the journal entry that I had entirely misinterpreted an experience in prayer, and that God had fulfilled his promise even though I hadn’t noticed until that Saturday morning.

I concluded my opening remarks by saying, “I have really come to believe that remembrance is an important dimension of the spiritual life. … Remembrance helps us to give credit where credit is due, and when we begin to see God at work in our lives, we become more sensitive to his hand turning us to the left and to the right. For me, journal writing is a way of becoming more open to that guiding hand.”

This morning, I find myself thinking I should probably make a habit of practicing what I preach. I should review my journals on a regular basis to see how God is at work. This practice would enable me to be a more intentional co-creator, collaborating with God’s hand rather than running around willy-nilly chased by emotions, ego and pride.

Not surprisingly, since God has not seen fit to send angels my way, but occasionally speaks to me through dreams when I am being especially recalcitrant, a dream provided the necessary nudge. I dreamed I had to solve a problem. As my alarm relentlessly drew me out of sleep, I was scrambling to solve the problem, knowing that if I failed, the repercussions would be irreversible and devastating. As I was pulled from the dream by the fast current of awakening, I realized I couldn’t solve the problem because I didn’t understand it.

I woke feeling distressed with a question on my lips. What if I got it wrong?

A dream through which God hopes to work (plans to work? works?) usually lingers rather than fading. And so it was on that occasion. The question lingered. The dream image of being pulled away from a conference table and out of the meeting room lingered. The growing awareness that I hadn’t understood the problem we were attempting to solve lingered.

As I wrote in my journal that evening, I realized I was wearing blinders. I realized I was spending less time in prayer, meditation and reflection than is necessary for me to live attuned to God’s voice. I realized I had allowed myself to become so busy — an unfortunate pattern in my life that always proves to be counterproductive — I could only see the immediate present and ways it deviated from what I wanted.

I realized it was time to stop, look and listen. I needed to stop doing so much I sacrificed my prayer time. I needed to look back, to review journals and to identify how God has been at work. If I can’t see him at work, I can’t remember what he has done, and if I can’t remember, I am not open to the guidance he provides.

Finally, I needed to listen. I needed to listen to the way he was speaking through the circumstances of my life and the desires of my heart. The listening has been greatly facilitated by the decision to work less and pray more. I’ve needed to adjust some routines, but already I am more at peace.

Reviewing my journals and reflecting upon what I find on those pages helps, too. As I remember times over the past year when I have experienced peace, joy, love, and the other fruits of the Spirit, I am filled with a quiet certainty that God has been at work. I may not understand his ineffable ways, but I can trust the evidence he scatters through all my days. And so, like the psalmist, I will remember.

Advertisement

Numinous Improvisation

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, GNTD)

That’s straightforward enough. An angel comes; an angel says, “This is what you will do and this is how it will happen;” and that’s what happens.

Kind of. Her betrothed almost set her aside — though he did plan to do it quietly and, hopefully, avoid the stoning which was the penalty for adultery. She gave birth in a barn — though Bethlehem would have been full of relatives at the time, which demonstrates how hardened most hearts were toward her among family members. Then, because her husband had a dream, she found herself traveling to Egypt with a newborn, possibly before she had recovered from the birthing experience, which may have been accomplished without the help of a skilled midwife.

Two thousand years have done a great job of wiping away the sweat and tears of what must have been a difficult lived experience. But stories always do that — even the stories we tell ourselves, especially the stories we tell ourselves about others. Their lives never seem to have the muck and chaos of our own.

This morning, as I sat down to prayer, which is how I start every morning when I am on my own, the daily readings included the gospel story of the Annunciation, and I found myself envying the way God clearly indicated to Mary his will for her life. I’ve not had that clarity for a very long time — since 1998, to be exact. In truth, I only had clarity in my life for one short period of time — from 1990 – 1998. I had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend, saw one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings; thought, “I could do that;” and walked out of the museum knowing in my bones that my life would be wasted if I didn’t paint. So, creating art; motherhood, the deep call of my heart; and personal/spiritual growth formed the triad that shaped my life during that period of my life.

It might be more accurate to say creating art, motherhood and personal/spiritual growth shaped me during that time, but I did not allow them to be enough. Who knows why? In a meditation published in December in a devotional called The Magnificat, Ann Voskamp, writing about The Fall in the Garden of Eden, says, “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what he gives.” Perhaps, unintentionally, I did allow myself to be tempted away from the grace-filled gifts that God had given me.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy, writes, “People who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. … In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless, but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.” While it may be arrogant to claim unusual giftedness in any of the areas indicated, it might be fair to wonder if I didn’t try to prove myself in other areas — grant writing, non-profit management, mentoring — because of self-doubt. It might also be fair to wonder if I failed to recognize the deep stirring of my heart in the areas of motherhood, art and personal/spiritual growth because I was so engaged in trying to prove myself.

I’ve been spending several evenings a week throughout Lent in prayer and in reflecting on God’s call for me at this juncture in my life. I’m turning 60 this year, and am acutely aware of time’s winged chariots. During the past 17 years, I’ve moved seven times and held nine different jobs. I was not carried on the wings of a dream or driven by burning ambition. At best, it might be said, I was a pilgrim seeking the Holy Grail of destiny or clarity or God’s will or something. I wanted to know again the passion that allowed me to balance two jobs, an art career, raising children, caring for a household, and prolific, self-reflective journal writing.

What I’ve come to realize is this — for me it comes down to three things: my relationship with God, creative expression  and — yes — motherhood. A life shaped around that sacred-in-my-life triad is deeply authentic and has the potential of becoming deeply rooted. Because I failed to value what mattered most — going so far as to set painting aside for at least five years, maybe longer — I don’t know what that life will look like. I know that I’m a deeply contemplative person, so it probably won’t be a busy life. I know that these authentic expressions of myself will have to be balanced with activities that enable me to be financially self-sufficient. I know that I will have to be flexible in exploring what all of this means, in imagining what it will look like.

Over the weekend, when I was writing in my journal, I found a phrase to describe this phase in my pilgrimage — numinous improvisation. I like the sound of that. I like the way it characterizes this time as sacred. I like the way it alludes to music and theater and other performing arts. I like the dignity it accords this shaping period of uncertainty.

I also like being old enough to appreciate a simple truth: Mary’s clear instructions didn’t reveal how difficult God’s promise unfolding in her life would be. Maybe all these years of drifting through myriad life experiences has been God’s promise unfolding my my life. Maybe, I’ve been collecting material which will provide rich earth for the seeds of creative self to grow through this numinous improvisation and  bloom. I hope so.

I switched metaphors there, didn’t I? Hopefully, you get the picture anyway.

Circles

“Choice is the holy-making stuff of life. There is no such thing as the inconsequential. Everything we do affects something and someone. Choice, therefore, is a spiritual skill of great import.” Sr. Joan Chittister, FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY

My thoughts are a jumbled mess this morning.

Brodie and I are heading west on Interstate Highway 80. We left Salt Lake City this morning about 7, after breakfasting at the hotel. By nightfall, we will be home. The hugs of two-year-olds (and their mom) will greet us. Right now, though, we’re driving through a desolate area. The salt flats about which I’ve read, I wonder. I’d ask Brodie, but he’s listening to an audiobook and I don’t want to bother him.

Instead, I allow my thoughts to float among memories and the morass of patterns I’ve glimpsed in recent days. Peg Schneller’s smile. The first time I heard Paige and Avery’s hearts beat. Signing up for design class with Signe Stuart. All of them part of the mysterious, awesome pattern of circles within circles that is God’s gift of life to me.

I moved into Custer, South Dakota, on a Monday and packed a truck to leave on a Monday. Peg was the first person in Custer to welcome me into the community, and her grandson Matt was among those to help as I embarked upon another new beginning. In them, in the way their lives intersected mine, my experience in a place Native Americans considered sacred, until gold and beauty of the place attracted outsiders, had come full circle.

There, I lived a two-year spiritual retreat of profound significance. There I experienced healing so I could embrace life rather than endure it as a hair shirt in penance for mistakes I made when I was young. There, in a dynamic parish family through whom the Holy Spirit delights in working, I came to experience the balm and support of community. There I learned to appreciate and use with both joy and humility the gifts God gave me. There I was anointed. There I received instruction in preparation for entering the promised land.

Preparation for what promised land? I’m not entirely certain, but other circles — that of family, that of art — provide hints.

I loved being a mom. I loved the miracle of life growing within me, the moment of discovery when I held each of my daughters for the first time, the on-going miracle of life as they grew into the beautiful women they are today, and the challenge of giving them roots without clipping their wings as they grew. Jobs provided income with which to support my family, but being a mom was my life’s work.

I was lost when my girls left home, adrift, searching for something to give life meaning. Religious life? No. A new career direction? No. What, then, what shall I do?

The first time I heard my granddaughters’ beating hearts, there sparked within me a flame of creativity that had not warmed me in years. I wrote a poem. I painted a plate. I designed and assembled a scrapbook. I felt alive again, eager again, ready again to share the miracle of life — first just the sound of beating hearts and then the sweetness of little fingers which would grow into hands that held mine as we walked together.

Yes! Another circle — beginning to beginning — new life to new life — love to love again. And now, I’m to be more than the occasional visitor. I’m to be part of their lives. Three years of earnest prayer answered.

But God in his infinite wisdom knows we need more than relationships, sweet as they are, and love, life-giving as it is. We need meaningful work, and he has reminded me in recent months of a gift he has given me — the desire to create visual images, to paint, to be an artist.

I was not one of those people who could draw anything at a young age — I’m still not. I have simply been fascinated by visual images all my life. In elementary school, I never did anything good enough to be posted on the bulletin board in the hall. In high school, no one seemed to think much of my occasional efforts to draw a portrait.

In college, I decided on impulse to take a design class and was fortunate enough to study under Signe Stuart. I not only learned principles of composition, but also found, for the first time in my life, someone who encouraged the artist hidden behind the fear and feelings of inadequacy. I took a couple drawing classes, a color theory class and a painting class, and then painted for years, developing my skills and style, until my work was good enough to exhibit and sell.

I never actually made the decision to quit painting. After my girls left home, in my search for purpose, I just took jobs that consumed so much of me, nothing remained for creative endeavors. But my spiritual journey created the crack in my life that allowed art to re-enter, a prayerful painting retreat at which we drew leaves, just as my classmates and I had drawn them in Signe’s class.

Another circle. I suppose it’s not surprising my paintings these days include circles. I see them all over the place. In my spiritual life. In my family. In my avocation. The only part of my life that hasn’t yet come full circle is teaching, the only job that excited my imagination and gave me a sense of purpose. Maybe I need to see if California needs English teachers.

Perhaps that will be my promised land. It’s hard to say, but I do know this. Whatever it is I do, I know it will be holy-making stuff, because God has shown me exactly how good he is. Praise him from whom blessings flow over us and through our lives.

Future of Hope

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

I find myself thinking this morning, “Well, it took you long enough!”

And then murmuring, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you.”

These days I feel as though I am living on the cusp of a miracle. I wrote my daughter yesterday that I haven’t been this excited about the future since I was pregnant — and my youngest turns 31 in September. That’s a long time.

But the promise of a future of hope came more recently than that — in December 2009 to be exact. I was editing a small weekly newspaper and feeling a little overwhelmed. Not only did I have all of the usual stuff to do — reporting on community events, heading out with my faithful digital for photo ops, editing everything else submitted for publication, enhancing photos digitally so they’d look crisp and clear in print, and attempting to be welcoming to anyone who happened to wander into my office when I was on deadline — I also had Christmas ad sales to squeeze in.

On top of that, staff problems were tying my stomach in knots. A gal who had worked for the company for years, and hadn’t managed to have a good working relationship with anyone in my office but had inexplicably charmed the publisher into thinking she was a real treasure (I didn’t ask how), was in one of her moods. This involved a little sport I called “editor baiting.” She would do everything she could to provoke me into losing my temper. The longer I resisted, the more creative and malicious her behavior became until she succeeded. Then, she’d run like an injured six-year-old child to the publisher and cry about my outburst. She always managed to leave out the details regarding her conduct.

The baiting had just begun, and I knew I had some rough days ahead. My usual approach was to be in the office as little as possible on those days when she worked. However, since I had to call businesses to see whether they intended to place Christmas ads, escaping wasn’t going to be an option. A sense of hopelessness had begun to wrap itself around me.

I loved my job — the relationships I’d built with people in the community, the way elementary school children would come running when I showed up because they wanted hugs from “the picture lady,” the way I was able to use the newspaper to strengthen people’s pride in their community by focusing on the wonderful things happening. I loved the house I’d found there — the sun-drenched rooms, the hardwood floors, the walls painted to showcase my art collection. I loved being surrounded by friends — the dinners over which we talked about art and faith, the laughter-filled shopping trips, the way in which even a trip to the grocery store involved warm welcomes.

So much good. So much beauty. But my stomach was tied in knots because of a work situation I could not rectify and that threw a pall over everything else. I did what I always do in situations like that, when nothing I can do will alter that which is adversely affecting my life — turned to God in prayer.

Our parish priest had given away Advent devotionals the previous Sunday after Mass. When I paged through it that morning as I sat down for a chat with the Lord, I came across a prayer for hope. It began with a beautiful poem by Sister Genevieve Glen, a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado. That led to a beautiful responsorial version of Psalm 42: “Athrist is my soul for the living God”(v.3).

And then, God whispered in my ear. No, I didn’t experience auditory hallucinations. I didn’t actually hear anything. Rather, I had the sense of having just heard something — as though a friend had spoken to me and I was reflecting on the words before responding. I was struck with awe and wonder.

I was familiar with the passage I read following the psalm — Jeremiah 29:11-14. It was not new to me, but never before when reading the passage had I felt God speaking to me personally. Rather, I thought of a more generic blessing, of a distant, heavenly Father making the Sign of the Cross over the masses. This time, it seemed as though I had heard the words as a personal promise.

This, Mary, this is for you. Remember it. Hold on to it. Trust me to bring this to fruition in your life.

I wanted to believe that God made a personal promise to me. I wanted to believe the hopelessness that threatened to take the joy out of my Christmas preparations would lift and all would be well. I started carrying the devotional with me. Every time I had to warm up my truck to go somewhere, I would pull out the devotional, turn to the prayer of hope and lift my petition to God while the defroster cleared my windshield and all the engine parts became warm and willing.

Advent passed and Christmas. Another year with its work-dynamic roller coaster. And another. I hadn’t forgotten the promise, though I did fail to see how God had fulfilled it in my life. In the spring of 2011, I discovered the publisher had decided to replace me and I accepted a different job. I discovered fairly quickly that I was not a good match for the new organization, and left it within a matter of months. A period of unemployment led to a period of underemployment.

I never forgot that Advent prayer experience — it was limned in wonder, even in memory — but over time my capacity for mental gymnastics had transformed it. God hadn’t really made me a promise. I was just emotionally vulnerable that morning and imagined an intimate prayer experience. And, that alone helped me through some rough times. That’s what I’d begun to tell myself.

But now, I suspect I was just impatient. The other morning, just before waking, I dreamed people were telling me I was pregnant. “How can this be?” I asked each one, as I encountered them. “I’m losing weight; my pants are baggy; how can you believe I am pregnant?” That morning, as I sat down to my devotions, I read, “the angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream” (Matt. 2:13), and that evening, as I picked up a book of poetry — Risking Everything, edited by Roger Housden — it opened to “On Angels” by Czeslaw Milosz. “I have heard that voice many a time when asleep / and, what is strange, I understood more or less / an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue.”

I knew then that my dream had been the voice of an angel, telling me God’s promise — the future of hope — was coming to fruition. I’d been excited about the move I’m about to make prior to that, but now — the joy of anticipation almost overwhelms me at times. I am living on the cusp of a miracle and know it with each breath.

Thank you, Lord. Thank you.

Simple Gifts

I had to walk away.

I simply had to walk away. I had been painting for nearly three hours, knew the painting wasn’t finished, but also had no clear sense of what it needed to take it from a work in progress to “yes!” I suppose that’s a strange way to express the sense of rightness that indicates a work is complete, but that’s about the only way I can say it.

I will be working on a piece, make a brushstroke of some sort, pause and know that I can do nothing to improve it, that another stroke may well be the one that takes it from finished to overworked, from “yes” to “shit,” from satisfaction to a strong desire to simply trash it. It’s entirely intuitive and, at the same time, based on years of practice and experience. It’s that inner sense that knows, that simply “knows.”

At this moment, I’m oddly grateful to have experienced the inner prompting that said, “Take a break.” It’s a grateful joy, actually, the joy of seeing an old friend and knowing all is well even though the hiatus between visits has been years. It’s a homecoming of the most profound kind, a coming home to self.

That probably sounds overstated, but it’s nothing more than simple truth.

I am painting again. Regularly. In an improvised studio with a small table-top easel (since 19 months ago I gave away the easel that had been my companion for more than 25 years, having not used it on a regular basis in ages). I am painting.

It seems like a miracle in my life at this moment. In 1979, I took my first art class and discovered an unexpected joy in creating images. Through most of the 1980s, I painted on a regular basis for the simple pleasure of the activity. I used to say that painting kept me sane.

In August 1989, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, seeing work by Masters in person for the first time. Cezanne. Van Gogh. Renoir. All of the Impressionists that I had studied in books and magazines were before my eyes and I could see the way they manipulated paint. I could see the way they used color.

I had an epiphany that day I didn’t share until years later. I realized that if I did not paint, my life would be wasted. I returned home and began, in typical fashion, to begin conducting research. By early the following year, I had one-year, three-year and five-year goals as well as an action plan. Slightly more than a year later, I had achieved all of those goals. All of them.

And seven years later, I was well on my way to supporting myself as an artist. With a grant that I had been awarded, it would no longer be necessary for me to juggle art activities with two jobs. I could pare my life down to one part-time job and some artist residencies in addition to my own creative work. Nearly a decade of hardwork was beginning to bear fruit and I was excited.

Then, the phone calls started. A small art center needed a director and the caller felt I would be perfect for the job. For months she called. Eventually, the part of me which cannot resist helping others, if it’s at all possible, persuaded the part of me that knew deviating from my plan was a risk to accept the position.

It was a disaster. Eighteen months later, I was out of work, burned out and profoundly depressed. I stayed in bed for days on end, ate Cheetos and Hershey’s chocolate bars, and repeated to myself over and over like a mantra, “I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else. I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else.” Those words stood between me and suicide.

Eventually, I found another job and started painting again — not the elaborate pieces that I had been exhibiting, but landscapes. I was finding my voice as a plein air artist when I answered the siren call of another nonprofit and history repeated itself. That time, lifting myself from the ashes like a phoenix did not involve painting. I did some scrapbooking for a creative outlet, but essentially forgot how to use a brush.

And then, in October, I saw a listing in our diocesan newspaper for a one-day retreat called “Prayerful Painting” at the local monastery. I signed up, got cold feet and went anyway.

I still cannot believe the dynamic that was unleashed in me that day. Sr. Terese Marie began by giving each of us a leaf to draw. As I worked, I was taken back to 1979 and my first art class with Signe Stuart, an incredible artist whose work continues to be exhibited around the country. She, too, had us draw a leaf as one of our assignments.

As I worked, I thought of Signe and the way she encouraged me. In some ineffable way, she saw the artist in me before I did. On a spiritual level, I realized that God, too, sees me and the gifts that are mine to express into his world before I know them myself. That was a profoundly healing thought, coming as it did at a time when I’m working in a convenience store, joking about the downward mobility of my life, and trying to come to terms with working at a job that is by no stretch of the imagination a professional position.

I left the retreat with an inchoate understanding that I still have gifts to express into the world and a strong sense that I need to start painting again. In the following weeks, I cleaned out the second bedroom in my apartment, which had basically become a storeroom, set up my improvised studio and began to work.

Most mornings, unless I have other commitments, I get up, make coffee, feed the cats, scoop their litter, grab a freshly-brewed cup of coffee and head for my studio. There, I work for two or three hours before cleaning my brushes so that I can spend some time in prayer and eat before going to work. In the past month, I’ve completed three paintings and have a fourth nearly done.

Granted, the paintings are small — only 11 inches by 14 inches, much smaller than any of my previous work — and the subject matter is slightly absurd for an artist known primarily for unconventional portraits. I’m painting leaves — not clusters of leaves; each painting is essentially a portrait of a single leaf. I picked up four one day while scouting Custer State Park for possible painting sites and carefully store them in a wooden cigar box.

I should probably be embarrassed by this activity, but I am not. Rather, each time I am simply grateful to be working again. I call the series — and I think of these paintings as part of a series — “Simple Gifts.”

The double entendre is intended. The subject matter is simple and the act of painting is a gift in my life. But the title also refers to the Shaker hymn written in 1848, a hymn I first heard in high school as part of Aaron Copland’s “Appalacian Spring.”

“‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

This place in my life is undoubtedly just right. This place is a valley of delight.

Saying Good-bye

Sara hates this story, but I have to tell it one more time.

After she left home to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a friend of hers gave me a present — a small gray and white kitten — telling me that with Sara gone, we needed something temperamental in the house. That was nearly 15 years ago.

We named him Michael, having just seen a comedy of  that name in which John Travolta portrayed an angel named Michael — a rude and obnoxious angel, and he became part of the family. Pets do that, take up residence not only in our homes, but in our hearts.

Like other family members, they begin to influence our decisions.

Ever after Michael joined our family, it was necessary for me to find housing that allowed pets. That led me to a wonderful apartment in Pierre that overlooked Hilger’s Gulch, which would watch turn gold as the sun set. That led me to a house in Lake Preston owned by a man who allowed me to paint the walls, so finally I was surrounded by color, which was a joy and comfort for me. That led me to my current apartment and the friendship of a 95-year-old woman who also lives here.

Michael didn’t do well as an only cat, though, so his presence expanded my family in another way, too. For the first ten years, his companion was a classy black cat with white tuxedo markings named Claude. Their bond never ceased to amaze me.

I picked up Claude on the last day of my work week so I could be around and negotiate their getting-acquainted period. I separated them briefly so I could introduce Claude to the litter box, and then I allowed them to meet. Surprisingly, after a brief hiss, Michael laid down on the floor  about six feet from the box in which I brought Claude home and waited.

Claude was a little dandy, about three months younger than Michael, who was eight- or nine-months-old at the time. I had chosen him because he managed to hold his own with puppies at the pet shot, even though he appeared very delicate. Michael, by this time, was quite large. The vet had told me he needed a companion, but I wasn’t sure how he’d  react to an interloper. I didn’t want his companion to be afraid of him.

With those two, I really didn’t have to worry. Claude hopped out of his box, did a Halloween cat routine with arched back and fluffed fur, and waited. Michael just laid on the floor, flicking the tip of his tail. Claude hopped a little closer and repeated the routine; Michael didn’t move.

A couple hops later, Claude was cautiously sniffing Michael from one end to the other. By this time, Michael was purring loudly. When he finished sniffing Michael, Claude laid down beside him and Michael began to groom him. That was it. They’d adopted each other and began to emulate each other.

Claude died during my last year in Pierre. It was a grueling death, not because I hadn’t tried to put him to sleep, but because, unknowingly, I had chosen a vet who didn’t believe in euthanizing animals. Finally, when Claude began to go into convulsions, I stopped believing in her and called someone else.

Since Michael was older, I decided not to introduce another cat into our family. However, Michael’s insistence upon being the center of my universe eventually wore me down. With companionship, he still wants to be held on a daily basis, and still wants to sleep with me, but he doesn’t feel I needed to devote every waking moment to him.

Jake (Jacob) and Izzie (Issaac) were small orange bundles of fur when they joined our household. That transistion was not easy. I needed to put gates between rooms to keep them separated. Michael would stand on one side hissing and snarling. The kittens vacillated between hiding behind furniture and standing on the other side of the gate hissing back.

I can’t honestly say I know how they eventually resolved  their differences. Michael, clever cat that he is, learned to jump the gate and I could no longer keep them separated. Eventually, the kittens began to curl up by Michael — one at a time, not both together — and they’d groom him. This peace-making happened while I was at work.

I’ve recently learned the name Michael is from Hebrew and means “who is like God.” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. More than once over the past 15 years, I’ve come to understand the gentle way in which God works from that cat. He tends to be persistent and creative, but also very loving in his efforts to direct this household.

Most often, I’ve noticed his intervention when I’ve resisted prayer. Sometimes, I admit, I’m not entirely happy with the life God has given me, and when I’m feeling that way, I don’t want to talk about it — not too God, not to anyone. I just want to read until the raw feelings inside have been numbed by fiction and I can face the world again.

Michael would never leave me alone at times like that. He’d insist on being held, or complain until I fed him, or indicate that scooping the litter wasn’t enough, it needed changing. Once he pushed me past the inertia, I’d find myself making a cup of coffee and heading for my prayer table, where I would journal and pray myself into a place where I was open once again to God’s will in my life.

I don’t know what I’m going to do now. For the past couple months, I’ve noticed that he was slowing down and losing weight. I thought his age was catching up with him. At 15, he was definitely an old cat.

Last week, though, I noticed he was drooling more than usual, and when he tried to eat treats, they just fell out of his mouth. That made me watch him more closely. I noticed his wasn’t eating very much, and decided I needed to take him to the vet. I had planned to make an appointment for Monday, when I wasn’t scheduled to work, but when he didn’t sleep with me Friday night, I knew it was more serious than I realized.

On Saturday, the vet found a growth on his tongue. She couldn’t tell whether it was an infection or a tumor. Before deciding whether to try treating him or to put him to sleep, I had her run a few tests to see if he was otherwise healthy. He was, and received a powerful antibiotic injection. It didn’t help.

It’s a tumor, so today my friend, my personal messenger from God, will leave me. Over the past few years, when I’ve been exasperated with him, Katie has told me I would miss him if anything happened to him. If tears are any indication, she’s right. My heart is breaking — for that stupid cat.

It’s a Wonderful Life

“There are things in a person which are hidden from the person in whom they are. And they won’t come out, or be opened up, or discovered, except through tests and trials and temptations. If God stops testing, it means the master is stopping teaching.” Saint Augustine of Hippo

If this year is any indication, God is definitely continuing his work in me.

In March, I learned an employer with whom I’ve worked four years had started advertising my job — without mentioning this fact to me. In September, I was told I would no longer be doing the job for which I moved across state. In November, one of my granddaughters was hospitalized after being injured at day care. And, the day before Thanksgiving, I learned I will not be able to collect unemployment.

I have to admit, I’ve lost some sleep over these things — which is to be expected, I suppose. But, at the same time, I am being drawn into a more intimate relationship with God that fills me with such joy!

At times, it feels as though I never knew God at all. I’ve realized I certainly didn’t trust him, not with my life. As my spiritual director observed, I have a tendency to take care of myself.

And though I’ve had some experiences in prayer which might be considered mystical prior to this, I’ve never before felt my heart open in complete surrender or felt such assurance that God is going before me, opening doors, even though at times there is little tangible evidence of this. It’s as though he has said to me, “You will hear my voice and follow me. It’s that simple.”

And it is — as long as I anchor each day in prayer and give thanks throughout the day for all the daily blessings that God pours into my life, blessings as easy to take for granted as the sweet joy of a granddaughter’s smile, a daughter’s hug or a good night’s sleep. But there have been other blessings as well — among them the gift that allowed me to attend a retreat that deeply nourished me, regular lunches with a friend whose companionship fills me with peace, the recommendation which helped me to land a freelance job.

But gratitude is only part of trust. Surrender is part of it, too, surrendering control, surrendering the need to know. Like the Israelites in the desert, I am being asked to trust God to provide each day what I need. I am being asked to trust that he has plans for my life even though I don’t know what the coming days hold.

This is a counter cultural approach to life. We are a goal-oriented, achievement-oriented, success-oriented people. We measure ourselves and one another by what we accomplish, what we acquire and who we know. To abandon myself to God instead of fighting to make a place for myself demands my trust in God be active. Granted, I must still do my part — apply for jobs and show up for interviews — but I must also be willing to wait patiently until God opens the door through which I will enter the next phase of my life. This kind of surrender requires a daily, sometimes hourly, choice.

I know this life I am living at present doesn’t look like a blessing, especially to those who care about me most, but it truly is wonderful. Learning to trust God is an experience for which it’s worth suffering. Perhaps, with God’s grace, this time will bear fruit that blesses others as well.