Groundhog Day – reliving the same challenge again and again

groundhog-day-chris-piascik-flickr-creative-commons
Groundhog Day Chris Piascik, Flickr Creative Commons

I never could sit through “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray. Relive the same day over and over? No thank you. And yet, I can’t get away from my own Groundhog Day – the weakness in my life that haunts me, again and again.

What’s yours?

How many of us have those physical “weak spots” in our bodies that constantly succumb? The sore throat that signals a cold. The leg once broken, now chronically stiff. The back that aches simply by standing in place too long.

Spiritual weak spots

st. nicholas ted, Flickr Creative Commons
st. nicholas ted, Flickr Creative Commons

There are spiritual “weak spots” too, brought back to life again and again by circumstance. Mine is managing money – we always seem to be short. The same financial problems repeat themselves endlessly. Right now we’re going through a season of endless hits – dental bills, medical bills, car repairs. I climb two steps up the slippery slope only to slide back down another ten. It is death by a thousand cuts, wearing me down, making me tired and discouraged. Frankly it’s boring, eating away at any desire to approach God and ask again for the grace to continue in the battle.

St. Nicholas, patron saint of finances, must be sick of hearing from me.

The scars of repetition

It’s not like I don’t know why these things happen. We are poor money managers because making lots of it has never been a priority. We accept that. Decisions were made to favor other aspects of our lives rather than money. But the security of having enough would be nice!

Once upon a time my husband and I were polar opposites – he, the spender; me, the penny-pincher. The last major financial challenge forced us to meet in the middle and come together as partners. Learning to work as a team surely helps and I am grateful for that lesson learned, but it didn’t come without scars. Scars of shame at my own stupidity. Scars of loss when we’ve fallen short of meeting our obligations. Scars from feeling the need to keep our money problems a secret. Those scars make it hard to trust; I am stuck.

Injured Piggy Bank With Crutches Ken Teegardin, Flickr Creative Commons
Injured Piggy Bank With Crutches Ken Teegardin, Flickr Creative Commons

These periodic problems with money only fuel the desire to penny pinch and that’s the deepest wound of them all. I am small-hearted when it comes to giving money because I just don’t trust that God will provide what we need. I can trust the Lord in so many areas of my life but when it comes to finances, the well runs dry.

I am guessing this is why the cycle repeats itself — God still has something to teach me. Along with the lesson of learning to work in tandem with my husband, I have also learned not to ask God for money to “fall from the sky.” Instead I ask for fortitude, wisdom and patience. I’m guessing I also need to ask just as diligently for healing. And I’m learning to ask others to pray for me.

paul writing--featuredAs St. Paul was not freed from his “thorn in the flesh” after petitioning the Lord, I doubt I will be freed from mine of the spirit. But I can take a lesson from this favored saint who accompanies me on my marathon journey to God each day: accept it and rejoice in it. To paraphrase 2 Corinthians 12:10, when I am weak, I am strong. Because I depend on God’s grace, not my own strength, to get through each challenge no matter how often it repeats. God’s strength never fails.

It could be Groundhog Day every day but God’s grace will prevail. He will test me, prune me, yank up the weeds, teach me. And I will grow stronger through him and closer to him.

Originally published in The Catholic Free Press, October 14. 2016
copyright 2016 Susan W. Bailey

 

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Little things mean a lot to Mary — offering music for Our Lady

In honor of the birthday of Mary, the Mother of God, here is my September column for The Catholic Free Press. I have an exciting announcement at the end of the post.

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madonna-and-childRecently while driving to work I listened to a song about Our Lady of Gaudalupe, I felt a surge of emotion and recognized a feeling I had not experienced in a very long time – Mary’s special touch of peace. I felt elated quickly followed by regret that I had been so negligent in my devotion to our Blessed Mother. It’s so easy to rattle off a “Hail Mary” without a thought! Continue reading “Little things mean a lot to Mary — offering music for Our Lady”

A little grace from a BIG God

old poolRecently I lost something I truly loved.

It was a minuscule loss when compared with the suffering of so many around me and across the world. Embarrassed at how much it upset me, I turned to God in prayer and asked for detachment. The prayer was swiftly answered in a way only God could imagine.

So what did I lose? Continue reading “A little grace from a BIG God”

Nice, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Orlando, and your own life: When you can’t find the words during desperate times

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a violent storm, in the world around us, and in our own private spheres.

We wake up to another terrorist attack or senseless shooting. We face a crisis of trust in our leaders.

Our faith is under siege. Believers face ridicule and rejection, and for some, martyrdom.

Sickness and death surround us. We witness children in poverty dying of starvation around the world. We encounter suffering, death and grief among our own families and friends.

In the midst of these storms,
do you find it difficult to pray?

Continue reading “Nice, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Orlando, and your own life: When you can’t find the words during desperate times”

Reaching my weight loss goal through the toolbox of Grace

My latest Catholic Free Press column (June 17, 2016)

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Grace is invisible.

We feel its power pushing us forward, carrying us as does a river’s current. It takes us many places both serene and chaotic. It molds and shapes us. Yet there’s nothing concrete to grasp onto. We cannot dip our hands into its waters nor physically feel that current.

Or can we?

Continue reading “Reaching my weight loss goal through the toolbox of Grace”

My secret sin – My secret singing

This is my latest column in The Catholic Free Press.

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I have a lifelong habit of talking to myself. I don’t consider a thought to be valid unless it is spoken out loud.

I’m that crazy lady you see barreling down the highway with hands waving and a mouth that never stops moving. I do my best brainstorming in the car. I also vent. My face displays my mood for all to see: happy, sad, excited, angry. I am oblivious to anyone around me and so I let loose.

So what possible harm can there be in all that? This has been the lesson of my Lent this year.

thirty steps to heavenWhile reading a book by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou, a Greek Orthodox priest called Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, I came across a chapter titled “Talkativeness and Silence.” There was another chapter further in called “Stillness.” Stillness is something I have long desired but felt I could not achieve. I can’t sit still for one moment without fidgeting nor can I keep my mind from racing. Furthermore, I cannot seem to get out of the prison of myself. These chapters both outlined the problem and offered solutions. The tools are simple to use but the task is impossible without God’s grace.

The chapter on “Talkativeness and Silence” made it clear that talking to myself was often not a good thing. For one thing, it creates noise that blocks communion with God–how can I listen above the din of my own voice? Talking to myself leads me deep within but not to the place where God dwells.

I have a hot temper and am easily aggravated; frequent venting is the result. Such open expression of my anger in private stokes negative feelings that spill over to others. A perfect example is road rage—in my outburst of anger against the driver who supposedly wronged me I judge someone unjustly. The more I rage, the more aggressively I drive to the point where it could endanger others. Road rage sometimes interrupts prayer, severing communion with God. It takes a great deal of effort to restart that conversation.

Cursing to myself happens without a thought. The inability to control that urge in private makes it harder to control my tongue in public, going beyond simple cursing to gossip and hurtful words towards others. Cursing to myself reinforces those behaviors.

Father Papavassiliou is right: “As long as we consider the tongue to be autonomous—something that falls outside the scope of Christian ascesis, something independent of God—it will inevitably become a tool of sin.”

Talking-to-Self

The Scriptures tell us that there’s no such thing as a private sin: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open”–Luke 8:17 (NIV)

You may not talk to yourself but everyone harbors thoughts. Where do those thoughts lead you? How do you express them? There is no thought that will not be revealed in one form or another. Those of us who vocalize our thoughts, even if just to ourselves exacerbate the danger of those thoughts harming someone else.

Conquering a lifetime of venting, lamenting and cursing seems like an impossible task. By my own power–not doable. Through an all merciful and powerful God, it will be done, especially as I humble myself and ask others to pray for me. The grace that comes through those prayers will help to control my tongue. Replacing negative thoughts with remembrances of all the wonderful ways God has blessed me is a powerful way to dispel any negativity.

Toni Birrer Complaining
Toni Birrer Complaining, Flickr Creative Commons

In asking God for help with my tongue, he has given me a wonderful tool—singing. Father Papavassiliou recommends this too. Therefore, if you see me driving down the Mass Pike, mouth moving and face happy and determined, you may witness me using this tool. The scriptures recommend it: “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19, NIV). It does a world of good for my soul, driving out wrongful thoughts. I know it silences my tongue.

For more aids to your Lenten journey, visit the Lenten Resources page for posts, podcasts, music and videos.

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Finding light and life in the midst of January stillness and cold

My January column for the Catholic Free Press

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The long Christmas break (along with the mild weather) is over and reality comes back with a thud. The prospect of a long winter ahead is daunting especially with memories of the epic snowfall amounts of last year still haunting many of us.

I once anticipated January with dread. Winter can be dark, oppressive and confining: the arctic air and biting winds… the deep snows burying the landscape … ice covering the streets and sidewalks … darkness that greets us when we rise and meets us at the end of each work day.

January is a quiet month. Birds don’t come to the feeder; their songs no longer greet me in the morning. Crickets and locusts have gone silent at night.

January was a month without life.

outermost-houseThen I read Henry Beston’s classic, The Outermost House. Beston chronicles a year of his life spent in solitude in an isolated one bedroom cottage which he built and christened the Fo’castle. Built in 1925, the 20 ft. x 16 ft. cottage was located at the edge of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham (now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore). Named a National Literary Landmark in 1964, it was washed out to sea by the Blizzard of ’78.

Originally planning to spent two weeks at the cottage, Beston was so taken with the “beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea … that [he] could not go.” During that year he wrote of the change of seasons and its effect upon his surroundings: the birds, animals, and insects; vegetation; the sand and the waves; the stars in the night sky. His prose is poetic, painting vivid pictures of color and texture. He describes the chaos and despair aroused by a devastating blizzard which nearly washed away his cottage, putting his life in peril. Yet even in the bleakest of settings, Beston’s writing inspires wonder and awe.

The Outermost House changed my perception of January because of Beston’s descriptions of arctic birds migrating down from the north, resting on the beach in the dead of winter. That description lifted me out of my own small circumstance and reminded me that life still goes on around me.

Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons
Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons

There was not only life, but light in the darkness: “Light came slowly into the world, coming not so much from the east as from some vague, general nowhere – a light that did not grow brighter but only increased in quantity.” It reminded me that by the end of January, the sky becomes pink again by the time I leave the office. The days are growing longer and the light, brighter.

January is not unlike time spent in the womb, waiting to be born. The caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly within the confines of the cocoon and breaks through into the sunlight. The baby, its delicate features forming nine months inside the dark, protective womb of its mother, emerges into the light at birth.

We just celebrated the coming of such a baby who brought his eternal Light into the world. His Light pierces the darkness and brings new life.

Ivan Saracino Christ's nativity, Flickr Creative Commons
Ivan Saracino Christ’s nativity, Flickr Creative Commons

So, rather than give in to the melancholy that can come with the conclusion of Christmas and the reality of winter, I seek instead to embrace this Light. It may be cold, snowy and dark outside but within, that Light will increase in brightness and quantity as I take advantage of the quiet of January to bask in it.

The arctic birds are returning to the Outer Cape. The days are growing longer. In the repose of January it is time to partake of the Light of Christ.

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Healed of Christmases Past–the cure is in plain view

Here is my December column for the Catholic Free Press.

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It’s here. The Christmas season. How does this make you feel?

Is it excitement as in days of old when you were a child?

Or, is it long to-do lists that never end? Shopping till we drop? Noise and chaos and endless obligations that make us tired and cranky while all the while we are told to be “merry?”

Is it dread, trying to stretch limited financial resources to fulfill gift obligations? Is it regret, frustration and guilt that we cannot buy what we wish for our loved ones?

Is it loneliness? Are we missing someone, loved ones who have died or moved away? Do we feel empty, sad or bitter?

Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons
Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons

The Christmas season evokes powerful memories and emotions, magnifying every joy as well as all the hurt, disappointment and loss we have experienced in our lives. Our reaction to any unattended and festering wounds will be visited upon everyone around us, especially those we love.

Tucked away in the midst of all this is a liturgical season often overlooked: Advent. It is the antithesis of a chaotic, noisy commercial Christmas; a soothing and sanguine contrast to a season clouded by wounds and losses. Advent does not look mournfully to the past; it draws our attention to a hopeful future while being firmly rooted in the here and now.

Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons
Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons

Advent features the key players of our faith: Mary, Joseph and of course, Jesus Christ. It features some of the most moving and poetic passages from the Bible–prophesies of old heralding the coming of the Messiah as the shoot of Jesse, filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and of strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (from Isaiah 11).

Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons
Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons

It documents the greatest act of obedience in history when a young virgin accepts the invitation from God to bear his Son. That obedience is not an onerous “do not” but a joyful “I do!” as evidenced by Mary’s rushing to the side of her kinswoman Elizabeth (thought barren yet pregnant) and spontaneously praising God with her and the babes in their wombs in the exquisite prayer of the Magnificat.

It illustrates sublime acts of trust, surrender, generosity and courage in Joseph who fully embraces the responsibility of taking Mary to be his wife despite the fact that she is carrying a child not his own. Going against the grain of longstanding tradition and enduring the naysayers, he knows there is a bigger picture to consider: Mary’s child is God’s Son. And he makes room for them.

So how does all of this help to sooth frazzled nerves, heal the wounds of Christmases past and fill empty and grieving hearts?

I can’t say how specifically. I only know that each year as I focus on Advent and turn away from a commercial Christmas, I have felt that soothing, that healing. My empty heart is filled.

I still grieve for loved ones. I still struggle with squeezing out the last dollar. I still battle with a heart that is small (although it is growing). I only know that the other day when I went to the Christmas Tree shop to finish off a gift basket for church, I felt serene, even enjoying the experience. To me, the Christmas Tree shop is the quintessential representation of a frazzled, noisy, chaotic commercial Christmas. And yet I felt deep contentment.

It’s the fruit of Advents past, reflecting on the readings, listening to the music, and looking to Mary and Joseph as the examples. Philippians 4:8 sums it up perfectly: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV)

Immersion into the refuge of Advent has healed my Christmas.

Grief as a life-giving creative process

This is my latest column from The Catholic Free Press.

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November can be a difficult month for many. The clocks roll back and the sun sets at 4:30. The temperatures cool and the last of the leaves fall to the ground. There are many cloudy, gray days.

Rosa Dik 009 --- November Golden Reflection ---, Flickr Creative Commons
Rosa Dik 009 — November Golden Reflection —, Flickr Creative Commons

November reminds us that we cannot escape our fate–we all die at some point. Our physical deaths can happen suddenly. Or our health may deteriorate over time, bit by agonizing bit. Dying may be the daily giving up of some part of ourselves that we cherish. Memories fade. Legs weaken and fail. We can barely check our email or turn on the TV because the technology overwhelms us.

rrchurches.com
rrchurches.com

November is the month we remember all those who have died and as a community, we lift them in prayer. It reminds us of the grief that never ends, perhaps bringing it forward just when we thought we had sent it to the back of our minds and hearts.

Grief is mysterious and capricious. It creeps up on us, explodes inside of us, in the most inopportune times and places. I can’t tell you how many times tears have suddenly sprung to my eyes in the middle of a crowded room. There is never a day that we forget our loved ones. Happy occasions make us long for them so that we can share our joy. Hard times see us reaching out in vain for those loving arms that would assure us that “everything will okay.”

Grief is a journey that demands our compliance. Resist, and we will pay the price of remaining stuck in that place of sorrow, bitterness and anger; we will die in our grief. Comply, and grief will recreate us; we will live again.

At the age of fifty-nine I have become the published author of not one, but two books, both of which are the products of my grief. When the journey began in 2010 after I lost my mother, I was too numb and worn out to resist– God’s grace beckoned me to go on grief’s journey. In the process, I discovered the life-giving creativity inherent in that journey, taking that which already existed and shaping it into something new and wonderful.

Any artist, writer, musician or dancer will tell you that excellence in the creative life requires a letting go of control–you must give yourself over to something bigger than yourself, and collaborate with that force which compels you to create. That force will demand that you dig deep for answers and that you be open to any possibility. Your heart must remain soft, supple, and vulnerable.

Beverly & Pack Aurora Borealis
Beverly & Pack Aurora Borealis, Flickr Creative Commons

Grief is that kind of creative force, demanding much the same.

I have no idea why I allowed myself to go with the flow of my grief journey. For some reason I was able to trust in God’s care and float down his river of grace. It was often a very confusing journey as I was given just enough knowledge to motivate me to continue, but no more; I was clueless as to where it would all lead. Sometimes the waters were rough. What I do know is that in the midst of my deep sorrow I found a wellspring of joy: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”. (Luke 6:38, NIV). As a result, each day became part of an exhilarating adventure.

Death and mourning need not signal the end; our faith teaches us that it is in fact a beginning. During this month of All Souls, may we pray for those who have penetrated the veil, and ask for God’s river of grace to carry us through our grief and recreate us. In the words of Saint Paul from Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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Confession of a timid soul

My latest Catholic Free Press column.

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The recent ruling by the Supreme Court on the legal state of marriage has reverberated across the country. People cannot stop talking about it and the conversations are often heated. A seismic shift has taken place in our culture. It caught me unprepared for the personal storm of confusion and fear that I would experience as a result.

Facing the inevitable

Christians are facing a “brave new world.” Confrontation is now inevitable; I cannot avoid it no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I have to be clear as to what I think and how I feel and learn how to express it both firmly and in love, as Jesus would do. Continue reading “Confession of a timid soul”