Attempting the impossible: describing my longing for God

How can I describe a longing for God? The scriptures describe it as a deer “panting” for streams of water (Psalm 42). The dictionary defines panting as a longing with breathless or intense eagerness; to yearn. Synonyms for panting include an ache, a craving, a desire. Hunger. Thirst.

Longing has equivalents in music: The sound of an oboe playing the “Going Home” theme from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. A trumpet playing taps over a grave. Monks chanting, their voices in perfect unison stretching out the notes like a violin, back and forth, the voices swelling and then pulling back. The final note sung, hanging in mid air until it fades away.

Hernán Piñera Thanks for the music, mysterious form of time Flickr Creative Commons

Longing can be a pleasant feeling as it is for something good. My longing increases when God grants me the ability to sense and feel His presence; it is pure gift. It’s like the glow after a glass of wine. It’s the lightheaded peace I feel when swimming, moving slowly through the water and then floating, letting my body go limp. It’s that leftover warmth I feel when I visit my special friend after we have shared laughter, hopes and dreams, thoughts about God and our lives, occasional tears, and the Eucharist.

Longing can also hurt. It pulls inside of me causing a painful sensation. It is loneliness when the wall between God and myself becomes hard and thick due to apathy, pride and sin. It’s a constant sensation, often in the background but lately, more in the forefront. There is no concrete feeling or thought associated with my longing that can be sufficiently expressed in words; I only know that I yearn for God’s presence.

Sometimes God is so close to me that I cannot perceive him. I feel empty inside, alone and afraid. Frequently I wake in the middle of the night and try to reach out to him and feel no consolation. Yet my scant knowledge of God reminds me that He is near. Often that has to be enough, just to believe.

A seed was planted this summer after the silent weekend retreat with the Trappist Monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey. A tiny seed of longing. The seed has not yet matured enough to poke through the ground so it needs a great deal of care. My Catholic faith has supplied me with what I need to nourish it: prayers, hymns, the Word, the liturgy, the Eucharist and the community. And new tools and reminders: Gregorian chant, looking up at the sky, and swimming at the local health club. Beautiful, simple and concrete reminders of that which is beyond words to describe.

Winam Morning Swim Flickr Creative Commons

Perhaps the psalmist says it best:

As an antelope pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When may I come and appear in God’s presence?

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

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Hearing God’s invitation in the silence

My latest Catholic Free Press column, September 14, 2018

I gave myself a birthday gift back in March by registering for  a weekend silent retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. A month after, the blessings are still unfolding.

As an introvert, I seek solitude. I prefer a quiet rhythm in my life that allows me time to think. Stepping away from my noisy world, I knew that a weekend of silence would be a challenge. I never dreamed that my first reaction would be intense loneliness.

There were eight other women on the retreat but we were instructed not to speak in the hallways or during meals. I felt separated from them, and from God. I knew it was because I had no idea how to depend upon Him alone for companionship. My loneliness was akin to how I feel in the middle of the night when He seems farthest away and all my fears are magnified. Yet I know I have to rely on faith, not feeling, to tell me He is near, so near that I cannot perceive Him.

Silence forced me to confront the wall that separated me from God, creating the loneliness. The surface nature of my spiritual life sharpened in clarity; I could no longer ignore those persistent invitations from God to go deeper with him.

There was another feeling besides loneliness – that of oppression. It was not a negative feeling but rather one that further imposed the silence. It was the reaction I experienced each time I entered the massive abbey chapel. We were permitted to attend Vespers, Lauds, and to celebrate mass with the monks, sitting in the back half while they occupied the front. To my delight and surprise we were permitted to walk through their area to the altar to receive communion; I considered that to be a privilege.

If anything reduced me to silence it was being inside that chapel. The power of God’s presence was overwhelming. The mystery, the awe, the majesty. Words failed me yet I sensed that my prayer was deeper as a result.

The monks too were mysterious: What were their lives all about? How did they come to discern their vocation when it is the very antithesis of life in the world today? How could they pray the same sort of prayers day after day and keep it fresh? How strong was the temptation to feel boredom or contempt at the familiarity of the rituals? How did they transcend that familiarity? After years of praying in that magnificent chapel, did the monks still feel that oppressive sense of God’s presence? Or was it better than that?

Openness to grace was the answer; soon God would show me how.

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During the weekend we gathered to listen to Father Timothy share some teachings; time was provided as well for one-on-one spiritual counsel. It was after that counsel that I began to notice openings in the wall.  While taking a walk around the magnificent grounds after an afternoon rain, I observed the clouds parting, allowing the clear blue sky to show through. I knew then it was an image provided by God, inviting me to remain open to His love. Now I can look at the sky every day and be reminded of that invitation.

This silent retreat was the best gift I could have given myself. I listen to Gregorian chant every day now to evoke memories of the monks in prayer. And the sky is a constant reminder of His call.

Silence no longer makes me feel lonely.

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

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Pink Umbrella book interview: Little Women Legacy: Getting Bookish with Susan Bailey, Featured Author

Look who got featured on Pink Umbrella Books for “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy”! Thank you Pink Umbrella Books for the honor and privilege of being featured in your new book.

In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with Susan Bailey, author, Louisa May Alcott devotee, and proud New Englander!

Contributor Susan Bailey cozies up with The Annotated Little Women in Massachusetts.


What is your favorite scene from Little Women?My favorite scene is when Beth runs over to thank Mr. Laurence, impulsively puts her arms around his neck and kisses him, and ends up sitting in his lap. I thought that took a lot of guts to do that! I am a typical Yankee (“frozen chosen” as they call us in New England) – quite reserved, especially when it comes to showing physical affection, and I know I would have been far too self-conscious to do what Beth did. She totally forgot herself in the spirit of love and gratitude towards…

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Mary at my side

Note: This article was originally published in the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com. It was noticed by Spirit Catholic Radio and they called me for an interview! The interview appears at the end of this post.

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Our backyard is my little slice of paradise. After the loss of our above-ground pool a few years ago, we replaced it with a carefully planned patio. The space includes a lovely koi pond (without the fish), equipped with a fountain. Complementing the pond are plantings of yellow lilies and tall grass. A cherub statue, looking up as if pondering, sits on one of the rocks.

This is my place of prayer during the warmer months. On a loveseat next to the pond I spend twenty minutes each day at dawn saying my morning prayers and meditating on a hymn. I look forward to this time of quiet. Some nights I go out and brave the mosquitoes to meditate at the pond; the fountain’s LED light causes the water to sparkle.

A few weeks ago I felt a sudden impulse to add someone else to my pond – The Blessed Mother. Recalling a statue in the basement, I brought it up and placed it on a rock next to the cherub. I love gazing at her as the fountain sprinkles water down like rain around her. And at night, the LED light shines on her.

Mary and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship but it is certainly no fault of hers. I have spent a lot of time with Mary in prayer groups and in reading yet I could not seem to grasp in my head or or my heart how or why I should spend time with her. It took a small family crisis to answer that question and draw me back to her side.

A short while ago my son and I had a serious falling out. We fundamentally disagreed on an issue and could not find our way back to each other. It broke my heart. We had always been so close, sharing thoughts and dreams together. The day of after that falling out, I thought of Mary and fled to her side. I prayed by the pond both day and night, shedding tears and asking for her help.

Like her Son Jesus, Mary does not ask, “Where have you been? Why have you been ignoring me?” She does not pass judgment or make me feel guilty. She opens her arms and welcomes home her errant child. I felt no hesitation in turning to her. She is a mother; she knows.

Over the course of a month I turned to her daily. I even repositioned the statue so I could see it from my bedroom window. She is a constant reminder and a perfect reflection of that sweet and special love of the Father, Son and Spirit. A love freely given to me, and one I do not deserve. And yet I can accept it and that, to me, is one of the great mysteries of a relationship with the Omnipotent God. He has no reason to love me other than the fact that He is Love itself.

Mary, of course, heard my prayers and set to work, and in the end my son and I reconciled. That first phone call that set things right again was a balm on my heart, dispelling the grief and healing the wound. Mary had sent a sign signaling the change of heart, one which I was fortunate enough to recognize because she opened my eyes to see it.

She heard me. Even though I had turned my back on her in the past, she attended to my needs. All it took for me to reconcile with my son was a simple invitation; it was the same with Mary. With Jesus, she waits for any sign of turning around, of coming home. Like the Father to the Prodigal Son, she too rushes to my side.

That line from the Shakers hymn, “Simple Gifts,” says it perfectly: “To turn, turn, will be our delight; till by turning, turning, we come round right.”

Here is my interview on Spirit Catholic Radio –
click on the image to listen:

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

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A Special Bouquet for Carmen

Pure creativity is such a sacred time – love this post by my friend Brunhilde Luken.

Brunhilde Luken, artist and writer

It was an exciting wonderful summer day. My thoughts went back to the time when my children were little. Now they are all grown up with children and some grandchildren of their own. For a second, time stood still. In my mind I watched them play and giggle and laugh. They were so happy. Thankful to our Lord for being able to remember it all. I thought, “Today is a good day to paint a special bouquet.” As I started to play-paint, I truly felt this was my playtime.

I put a first layer on and washed it off, this was a perfect background. As I started to paint, I could picture this in my daughter Carmen’s kitchen. With so much love in my heart, my brushes moved over the canvas with such ease creating this beautiful bouquet of flowers. I knew God gave me this special gift for my…

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My essay on Louisa May Alcott is part of a new book: “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Legacy of Little Women” — and you are invited to the book signing September 30th at Orchard House!

I am pleased to announce a new book coming out in honor of the 150th anniversary of Little Women for which I am a contributor; that book is called Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy from Pink Umbrella books. I wrote an essay titled “Louisa May Alcott as Muse, Guide and Grief Counselor”

Release date and book signing

I will be part of the official release and book signing at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House on Sunday, September 30 from 1:30-4. This will be a fun day with lots of great activities for the family. Stay tuned for details …

A great way to do that is to follow Orchard House on Twitter – @LouisaMayAlcott

“Like” and follow their Facebook page too.

Books for sale

Books will be available for sale for $10.99 each. Contributors will be on hand (including me) to sign your copy. 10% of all book sales will be donated to Orchard House.

Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy

Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy is also available for pre-order for $10.99:

Pre-order on Amazon
Pre-order on Barnes and Noble

Hope to see you at Orchard House on September 30!

 

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

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Groanings too deep for words

Note: This is my June, 2018 column for the Catholic Free Press.

Recently I brought the Eucharist to a loved in the hospital. It was hardly the quiet and reflective moment that we had hoped for with doctors and nurses buzzing around us. But we were both certain that Jesus was with us in body, blood, soul, and divinity. It turns out he was closer to us than we ever could have imagined.

Feeling full

All I know is that on the way home I felt full. I still cannot find the words to describe it. All I could think of was that scripture passage from Romans 8:26, “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” The best that I could muster was to just lose myself in thought, contemplating what had happened at my loved one’s hospital bed.

Holy moment

On the surface it was nothing extraordinary; no one would have ever guessed what was truly going on. A few prayers were said in haste so that my loved one could partake of the Eucharist before the medicine she had taken kicked in. It was hardly the holy moment that we desired.

In the middle of it all

Yet later in the car God made it plain that in fact it had been a holy moment as evidenced by my “groanings.” Jesus, incarnate, present in the plain, thin wafer was in the room, so close to us that we could not perceive him. It reminded me of a line in a song by Amy Grant called “Ask Me How I Know;” it describes it perfectly:

 

He’s in the middle of her pain …
Mercy brings life
He’s in the middle
Mercy in the middle

Shared experience

When I got home I mentioned to my husband what had happened and I was surprised to hear that he had gone through the same thing just a few days earlier after he had taken communion to a priest in the hospital. His description of the encounter was quite unremarkable, just like mine. And yet, he had the exact same experience of the groanings too deep for words.

Beyond proof

I realize now that these times of such groanings are wonderful and blessed gifts that cause us to transcend our earth-bound lives and enter into the mystery of God. We are lifted up beyond the need of empirical proof. We don’t need facts and figures and logical arguments; it is enough that the heart knows that something extraordinary is happening. We don’t need words because they are quite inadequate to describe the width, height, length and depth of God’s love (Ephesians 3:18).

A gift of grace

I even wondered how I could craft a column about this experience given the inadequacy of words. I am grateful that I could even get this rough description down on paper for as I write, I can relive that amazing moment of grace. And, better yet, I was afforded the opportunity to experience such grace with my loved one in the hospital and with my beloved at home.

Grace is not a moment we can manufacture; we can only recognize that God is about to bestow a gift. It requires having an open heart, ready to receive at any moment. It may mean doing something unexpected, or giving up something we desire. It could take us out of our comfort zone. It cannot happen if we rely on ourselves rather than him.

O Lord, may I be ever ready to receive your gift of grace!

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

 

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God’s surprise gift of love

My latest column in the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.

Last year my dear friend lost her dog and her cat after many years together. When I first met Jackie in 2010 she was able to go out with friends and do her food shopping although it took great effort. Diagnosed with Ménière’s, a disease of the inner ear that causes severe vertigo resulting in nausea and dizziness, it has been difficult for Jackie to walk and to tolerate riding in the car. Now eight years older, she is totally homebound. Losing her two animal friends was a blow.

Coping with decline

Jackie is a woman of great faith whose life is an inspiration to me. There is no one who has understood me better than she. We have shared our deepest, most precious thoughts and feeling with each other. Each week when we visit and I bring her Communion, I take note of how she copes with her slow decline. It is hard watching my best friend suffer.

A surprise

Yet, at the same time, I see the move of God in her life. There is no chance of physical healing, although she prayed for that (along with her family and friends). She has resigned herself to God’s will. But it has not made her bitter nor has it chipped away at her faith. Just last week we spoke of how God has a way of surprising us with His love when we least expect it. Just the night before the Lord provided for Jackie with the gift of a new dog. Although it was not in her plan, it was in His.

Love at first sight

Patches, a mixed-breed terrier, is nine years old. She came from a good family but her owners, an elderly husband and wife, had to enter a nursing home and thus she was given up. Jackie’s daughter found out about the dog online and was intrigued by the description of Patches as loving, craving affection, and enjoying being in the laps of her owners. She sounded like the perfect dog. Patches arrived just after Jackie’s 83rd birthday and proved to be everything she was described to be and more. One look into her eyes and we all fell hopelessly in love. Her friendliness, sweet disposition, and her way of cocking her head and dancing when she got excited captured our hearts in an instant. It was love at first sight, for Jackie, and for Patches.

Reminder of God’s love

Looking at the pleasure Patches has brought to Jackie, I feel wave after wave of happiness and gratitude. When she least expected it, God granted her one of her dearest wishes despite the fact that she thought she’d never own another dog. She did not want to burden her daughter and son-in-law with the care and feeding of a dog but they had other ideas. They too love Patches not only for herself, but for the joy she brings to Jackie.

And this is what led us last week to contemplate God’s surprising love for us. Meditating on a Scripture passage before receiving Communion, I read John 10 aloud. Verse 28 was the standout:  “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

Meditating on that verse, we both spoke of the many ways God shows that love. He knew of Jackie’s inability to leave her home. He felt her loneliness since losing her dog and cat, and her resignation at the prospect of never again enjoying the company of a pet. He understood her many challenges and sent a concrete expression of His sweet, fragrant love to ease her suffering.  It came in the form of Patches.

Always beside us

I reflect often on the image of this little dog cuddling close to Jackie. I think of her daughter and son-in-law’s thoughtfulness in providing this new friend. It all makes me smile. Patches is a reminder to Jackie and all those who love her that God hears the deepest longings of our hearts, and provides. Even as we must carry our crosses we are given refreshment along the way to remind us He walking beside us. In the long and difficult journey home, God never leaves our side.

Susan’s latest CD, “Mater Dei” is now available!
Purchase here.

Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).

River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.

Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

 

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Speaking to confirmation students as they make final preparations

I was very pleased to speak to our confirmation candidates on April 8 about practical ways to deepen their faith. Each year I help out with the confirmation retreats — the team gives two each year, scheduled during the Christmas rush. Although it can be difficult to take time away during December, the confirmation retreat is a wonderful reminder of why we love and serve the Lord. I am always so grateful for the time I get to spend with these wonderful kids.

Debbie Ziegler, who promotes our parish activities via social media and email, was kind enough to share with me the article she wrote about the talk. I understand from her that a good discussion ensued with her students after the talk. Thanks Debbie!

photo by Debbie Ziegler for St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Westborough, MA

At their final class before receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, Sue Bailey; musician, author, member of the Confirmation retreat team and St. Luke’s music ministry; addresses the students, sharing wisdom and experiences with stories, analogies and music. Sue provided excellent and useful advice and resources to help youth on their continuing path of discovery and faith in the Catholic church.

Sue answers the question, “Where Do I Go From Here?” by showing how she was able to recognize, then trust, the call of God; and that in doing so she was led to some unexpected and wonderful new places.

 The students enjoyed her presentation, which concluded with her song, “Will You Teach Me” and contemplation of the lyrics:
Oh, will You teach me to be loved
And will you teach me to receive
The bounty of Your endless grace
You gave me reason to believe
There’s something greater than me

Sue Bailey’s song “Will You Teach Me”:

The power of spiritual music: reflecting on the movie “I Can Only Imagine”

This is my most recent column in the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com.

What happens when you blend an iconic song with a powerful story of grace and forgiveness? You have “I Can Only Imagine,” the new movie directed by the Erwin brothers and starring J. Michael Finley as MercyMe front man and songwriter Bart Millard. The song “I Can Only Imagine” is the most played Christian song of all time; Millard wrote it after experiencing the graces of transformation and reconciliation regarding his abusive father, played by Dennis Quaid.

The gist of this reflection beyond reviewing this fine movie is how much it saddens me to think how many people lock sacred music away in the church building when it is here at our disposal through the wonders of technology. But more than that, it is available in our memories, to sing anytime we wish to our Lord.

Here is the link to the complete article on Catholicmom.