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Are we ready for a change in our lives? Reflections on the Sunday gospel, Mark 1:14-20

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven Labaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

In preparation for mass this Sunday:

This coming Sunday’s gospel is a story of fisherman making a career change. We hear that they “left behind their nets” to follow Jesus.

Some people think that being a fisherman in the time of Jesus meant being poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fishing was an extremely lucrative and well paying profession. Fishermen could enjoy a fairly good standard of living. Fishermen in the part of the world where Jesus lived had a job security and steady income that many others would envy.

Obviously, for these men, their well-paying jobs, and career security weren’t satisfying enough. We’re told that they were willing to leave it all behind and become “students” or “apprentices” of Jesus. (The word “disciple” means: student or apprentice.) These men were looking for something more in life. Apparently they found it in Jesus, because later on they were willing endure all kinds of suffering for the sake of what they discovered.

What about us? What about you?

  • Is what you’re doing in life right now satisfying to your soul?
  • Have you found what you need to live each day with serenity?
  • What would you be willing to “give up” and” let go of” in order to experience yourself more at peace with yourself?
  • Would the people you call “friends” support you in your decision? If not, do you need different “friends?”
  • Do you find something inside you, yearning and craving to make some changes in life?

Let’s pray this week for the strength to “leave behind the nets” that are preventing us from going where we need to go in life. How will we make 2015 different in a terrific way? Or, will it be more of same…same…same?

Copyright 2015 Steven M. Labaire

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Visio Divina– where a picture is indeed worth a thousand words

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a workshop teaching the practice of Visio Divina—praying with art, sponsored by Women of Faith out of Marlborough, Massachusetts (The Sisters of Saint Anne).

The presenters

Sr. Yvette Dargy and Sr. Pauline Laurence, Sisters of Saint Anne, presenting on Visio Divina.

Sr. Yvette Dargy and Sr. Pauline Laurence, Sisters of Saint Anne, presenting on Visio Divina.

The workshop was led by Sr. Pauline Laurence and Sr. Yvette Dargy who are both educators, community leaders, and pastoral ministers. They have served in local dioceses and in home missions in West Virginia. These innovative sisters are the founders of Vacations That Give, a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Anne, which offers a faith-based experience for adults integrating travel, work, prayer, and play.

Why pray with art?

A core part of Vacations That Give takes place in the evening when participants, after a day of service, talk about the gospels and how they connect to real life. As they saw participants struggling with understanding the Word of God, Sisters Pauline and Yvette formulated a practice of Visio Divina as a means of helping people connect the gospel with their lives.

Visio Divina is a contemplative practice meant to develop ways of seeing holiness in our everyday lives. By meditating on photographs, scenes in real life and icons, you can learn to penetrate the surface meaning and unearth what God means for you to hear and learn.

What grabs you?

Sr. Pauline teaches on praying with images.

The sisters taught that the first step is to find an image that grabs you, that makes you stop and look again. Using a series of questions as a guide, we were led to discover just what spoke to us through the images. The practice is simple: once you enter into the presence of God, you discern what the image is telling you. What is holy is what speaks to you and captures your heart.

Unraveling the mystery of contemplation

Contemplation is not as mysterious as it sounds but you do have to develop a practice of it. Once that door is open, you will find God speaking to you through the mundane, the joyful, the sad and the horrific.

Being over doing

The sisters presented sources to further explain what contemplation entails. Abbey of the Arts, a ministry of author Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, describes contemplation as countercultural, “a deeper way of life where less becomes more and the goals are slowness rather than speed, and savoring rather than productivity.” (from The path to contemplation). In essence, it is being more than doing, resisting the temptation of busyness which our world fosters.

Simple things

In Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, Joan Chittister writes that the contemplative way of living is about about basic things: seeing God in everyone, finding God everywhere and responding to all of life as a message from God. Contemplation is not a road show of visions, not an exalted state of being but rather a simple consciousness of the Ultimate in the immediate.

An ancient art

In a series of books known as Imaging the Word, contemplation is described as an ancient art which encourages the participant to slow down, read the Bible and other books and take time to be with others. We learn to be open to our own particular way of contemplation as provided by God.

Its use in ancient days

Visio Divina is indeed an ancient practice which benefitted the masses that for centuries were either illiterate or had no means to acquire a Bible. The use of icons and stained glass windows imparted the faith along with preaching and the oral tradition.

Biblical examples

Are there examples in the Word of Visio Divina? The sisters examined The Call of Moses in Exodus 3: how Moses saw the burning bush and how the colors, actions and sounds from the bush focused Moses on the Lord. Realizing something holy was occurring he removed his shoes. He heard God within himself and was able to reflect and respond to God’s grace.

Using the concrete to explain the spiritual

Jesus also made use of the visual in his parables, describing things people were familiar with: lilies of the field, sheep and shepherds, wine and bread. St. Francis did this with the creation of the manger, to bring home the story of the incarnation of Christ.

Too many images?

We however face a problem that previous generations did not: that of being bombarded with images! Sisters Yvette and Pauline counseled discernment, learning to choose which images we keep and which we discard from our memories since images can enter into our unconscious and disturb us without our even knowing it.

The results of Visio Divina

sr. yvetteThey further taught that images are direct and brief. Visuals speak to us first by grabbing our attention on an emotional level. As you spend time gazing at the image, your prayer goes deeper, uncovering unconscious thoughts and feelings that you need to address with God.

You need to form a response to the image that calls you. In the process you will be addressed, surprised and transformed by God just as Moses was with the burning bush.

Speaking, calling, directing … this is the move of God. The adage of a picture being worth a thousand words certainly fits with Visio Divina, telling us about God and about who we are with God.

Sister Pauline and Sister Yvette prepared a series of questions meant to guide you through your prayer with images. You can download them here. There are many wonderful sources for images from the aforementioned Imaging the Word to your own collection of pictures in your home including family albums. Going out for a walk and being mindful of what you see has unlimited possibilities (as does kayaking or canoeing). Searching on Google can also be quite productive.

Try for yourself

Following these suggestions for praying with images by Sr. Pauline Laurence and Sr. Yvette Dargy, I invite you to try with these three photographs I took on a kayaking trip last summer. Choose the one that captures your imagination and go with it:

640 mill pond


640 turtle


640 yellow flower1

What did you learn from your time of prayer?

Women of Faith have a Lenten day of prayer coming up in March. To find out more visit Women of Faith and ask to be put on the mailing list.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Art/Photography: All photos by Susan W. Bailey except where noted.

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Sacred Journeys, Near and Far (beginning with Wild starring Reese Witherspoon)–Guest post by Lori Erikson, aka The Holy Rover

This wonderful post by one of my favorite bloggers begins with a review of the Reese Witherspoon film, Wild, leading into a longing that has been planted within all of us from the day of our birth. No matter how much the observance of organized religion may be declining, the hunger for true spiritual connection continues to grow. In the end that hunger can be satisfied, yes, even within organized religion for within that structure, one finds accountability, community and the comfort that ritual provides (and that we all seek).

from Spiritual Travels

“Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon; from Spiritual Travels

Now that the holiday season is past, I’m back to Rovering again here at the Holy Rover. But even during my break away from writing, the theme of pilgrimage kept coming up. Today, near the beginning of this new year, I want to share some of those gleanings.

The first is the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild. I’ve been a bad girl, I’m afraid, and didn’t read the book first, but I loved the movie. It’s based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, in which she recounts her 1,100-mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. She is perhaps the most woefully underprepared hiker ever to complete this challenging route (the scenes with her ridiculously heavy backpack are worth the price of the movie). But as the film went on, it became increasingly obvious to me that she was on a pilgrimage. I don’t think the word was ever used specifically, but her journey had all the hallmarks: the seeking after meaning, the desperate need to recover from trauma and heartache, and the healing that slowly happened because of the journey. It’s a splendid film, one I highly recommend …

… I especially like what [Bruce] Feiler has to say about the need to be active in one’s spiritual life: “So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive a faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from on high….

Read the rest of this post on Spiritual Travels.

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Learning to forget through your prayerful imagination

My monthly column on The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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Learn to forget? Seems to me I have to first learn how to remember! Those of us past a certain age know that feeling well. So do young mothers, workaholics and anyone else who is overly busy. We all know that sinking feeling when we’ve forgotten an appointment. How many of us search for a word in the middle of a sentence, only to have it pop into our heads hours later?

Then again, there are things I would like to forget. That scary movie I saw just before bedtime. The dirty house that I have no energy to clean. The accident I had last summer that now makes taking any left turn into traffic an ordeal.

And then there are regrets, some from many years ago, that periodically remind me of pain I would like to leave behind. Saying no when I should have said yes. Talking behind a colleague’s back. Not having spent enough time with my children. Deciding not to visit my mother one last time because it was too hard, only to find out later that she had died.

It doesn’t make much sense to confess to the priest and receive reconciliation if I have no intention of letting go of the sin. Since God has already chosen to forgive me, who am I to disagree?

How can we hope to forget what we can’t forgive? How can we learn to let go of those words and actions that weigh us down and block that life-giving joy that God so wants us to receive?

Sometimes our own imaginations can provide the way when used as a form of prayer. In his famous Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius encouraged the use of one’s imagination in meditating on the life of Jesus and the saints. He encouraged people to place themselves into Gospel stories – in essence becoming the characters – and experiencing their feelings and reactions as they interacted with the Lord.

In the spirit of this kind of prayer, I imagine the following:

It was the end of the day and the sky was orange, reflecting the setting sun. The air was warm and thick, the trees laden with leaves. I am sitting on a dock by a river, swinging my feet back and forth as I listen to the water rippling by underneath. I watch a leaf drop slowly to the water only to be carried out of sight.

I turn to see a barge by the dock, filled to overflowing with rubble—pieces of wood, open crates, blocks of concrete, broken bottles, stacks of newspapers. I notice an odor rising from the barge that suggests garbage lying beneath the rubble. It is an ugly sight, marring the otherwise peaceful scene. I want to get rid of that barge. I try pushing the rim with my feet but it will not budge.

In my prayer Jesus sits down next to me on the dock. Instinctively I lean upon his shoulder and point to the barge beside us. He places his feet upon its edge and motions me to do the same. “Push,” he says and we both push hard, stretching our legs out as far as they would go. Slowly the barge moves away from the dock into the river and, caught up by the current, proceeds downstream, meandering out of sight.

As I continue to lean on the shoulder of my Lord I can feel a burden lift from my heart, placing itself on that barge as it drifts away. I look up into his face as he says to me, smiling, “It’s okay, you can let go, I have forgiven you.” Tears coming to my eyes, I thank him and kiss him on the cheek.

I repeat this exercise periodically as regrets come to mind. It reminds me that I am forgiven and I need to claim it.

Perhaps you too can sit with Jesus and push away your barge full of rubble as your way of learning to forgive and forget.

For a brief overview of Ignatian spirituality, visit http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/pray-with-your-imagination/

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Art/Photography: Sunset Over the Rupununi, Name – David Stanley, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons;
0522 Rust Barge, Name – Mark Morgan, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons

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A wonderful way to start off the new year, and each morning: As Morning Breaks by Lisa Hendey and the Catholicmom staff

as morning breaks cropped lg

I found a wonderful resource that I want to share with you.

It is available as a Kindle book which you can access not only through your Kindle Fire, but on your phone, tablet or computer.

This book is the work of Lisa Hendey and the staff at Catholicmom.com and is called As Morning Breaks: Daily Gospel Reflections. It only costs $2.99. You will find not only the book, but ways to get Kindle on your device so you can read it right away.

as morning breaksI love the convenience of having this book on my phone, tablet and computer. I read from the book each day to complement my reflection on the daily readings. I can just whip out my phone and call it up and it’s there.

That convenience was especially nice the other day when I was visiting my dear friend Jackie. I bring her communion each Tuesday and when we pray, we reflect on the daily readings.

Yesterday’s reflection was perfect for my friend, using the example of baking bread to illustrate a point about Jesus feeding the 5000.

Jackie is a wonderful cook and has baked bread in the past as I have (those frozen loaves you can get in the store). She and I enjoyed thinking about warm, freshly baked bread coming from the oven and how much our family members enjoyed it.

At the same time we thought about the love that Jesus showed to a large group of strangers who came to hear his teachings. He not only fed them socially, emotionally and spiritually, he fed them physically with bread.

And after that reflection, Jackie was able to receive communion, the bread that is the physical manifestation of  Christ.

All that from a little Kindle book!

Order your copy of As Morning Breaks: Daily Gospel Reflections and have this wonderful resource with you wherever you go.

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The Christmas Story as seen through the eyes of a cat at the manger

from Abigayil, The Story of the Cat at the Manger by Rouben Mamoulian,
given to me when I was a child by my favorite aunt (who loved cats as I do)

Abigayil, The Story of the Cat at the Manger by Rouben MamoulianAbigayil lived in the barn where Jesus was born. She was the mother of 5 kittens and in the course of hunting for their daily food, had her front paw broken when a child threw a stone at her.

On the night of Jesus’ birth, Abigayil saw that Jesus, lying in the manger, was stirring in his sleep due to a cold breeze. Out of love for Him and despite her pain, she went to Him, stretched across His body and purred Him to sleep. In course of this loving act, her broken paw was healed.

She reverently purred this prayer of thanksgiving to the baby Jesus:

“Little Jesus, I thank you for making me whole again!

Would that I were a king, so I could put treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh at your feet.

But I am only a cat, and I have no possessions.

The only thing I can offer you is my heart. But how can I offer that which is already yours?

I now know that I gave you my love the very first time I saw you, without any reason.
And now that you have given me a reason, I have no more love to give, because it is all yours already!

I thank you for teaching me that love is its own reason and needs no other, ever!”

Like Abigayil, may we unabashedly and without reason, give our hearts to the Baby Jesus.

Merry Christmas to you!

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The most precious of gifts: listening

My December column for the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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I created a video for this post with a musical backdrop and images to inspire you. You can read the text below:

Recently I wrote a post about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström (Flickr)

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

Comfort by Beverley Goodwin (Flickr) Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Comfort by Beverley Goodwin (Flickr) Jay and I love watching online kitten cams together.

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Note: It turns out Jay and I have something else in common–Foster Dad John’s Critter Room!

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