River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times was my first book, written in 2015. In the book I reflect upon suffering in my life which included the deaths of my parents and the loss of my singing voice. By trusting in God even when I had no idea where He was leading me, I experienced transformation as a result of the creative power of grief.
River of Grace provides powerful personal stories of loss and grief along with creative ways to cope through trust and faith. It’s a book of hope during this difficult pandemic.
To give you a better idea of the nature of River of Grace, I invite you to watch/listen to a 40 minute presentation on the book which also includes some songs that amplify the meaning.
Where to order River of Grace
My publisher, Ave Maria Press, is holding a Labor Day Weekend sale — go to their website for 10% off the purchase price.
I am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.
Today’s gospel reading (John 5:1-16) at the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus heals the man who had been lame for over thirty years struck a familiar chord. In that reading, Jesus asks a most obvious question: “Do you want to be healed?” He sensed that the man having been ill for so long, was stuck in that mode.
I remember hearing that question in my head when I had my throat blessed two years ago on the Feast of St. Blaise--that blessing healed my singing voice. Actually my answer to the question at that point was “No!”
Why the heck not??
I no longer wanted the responsibility associated with being a singer. It sounds ridiculous even as I write this but leading the singing at mass each week had become a grind. That’s what happens when you do it too long without a break. It was time to step aside and I used my lack of singing voice to do that. I sure as heck didn’t want my voice to come back–it would take away my excuse!
Eventually I came to understand that it was perfectly okay to take time away. I have only just returned to singing in church but this time as a member of the choir, without the leadership responsibility.
Get that elephant off of me!
Then there was the feeling of being stuck when it came to my weight. I felt like I had an elephant sitting on top of me–loosing weight seemed like an impossibility.
A rare hour spent in church in front of the monstrance changed everything. The grace I received from that time of prayer helped me to gently prod the elephant to move away. He did and I was able to embrace my diet (which is now a chosen lifestyle). I’ve lost 22 of the 27 pounds that I wish to lose. That elephant will not visit me again.
Praying at home
As I wrote in my spiritual journal, “Is My Day Your Day,” Even though I felt the insistent call again and again to stop, be still and pray, I could not get myself to do it. Again, it was time spent in adoration that caused that elephant to move away as well.
I was healed: my voice came back, I lost the weight, I’ve started praying in my corner each morning and each night.
Healing removes burdens, not just of the physical ailment or stubborn mindset, but of the guilt and attachment associated with those things.
Sometimes it is there for so long that it becomes your identity. It can be a excuse to avoid doing something that is difficult. It definitely requires a truthful assessment of yourself and that can be painful.
All of that was true. But in each case, I experienced transformation. SO worth it!
Not such a simple question is it: “Do you want to be healed?”
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?
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.
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).
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.
I was privileged to appear this morning on “Jon and Jeanne in the Morning” on Iowa Catholic Radio to talk about River of Grace:
We talked about the creative ways that God’s grace works through our grief when we lose someone we love. Turns out I’m far from alone in thinking my grief journey after my mom died was strange! Jon shares a similar story during the interview about losing his beloved grandmother.
All of you who have “been-there-done-that” will nod your heads in agreement when I say there are no rules when it comes to grief except that it is yours. It is a unique experience, one that if embraced, will bring us to new and wonderful things after the sorrow begins to pull back.
We know how grief can reappear in unexpected ways during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Coining a phrase often used by author Joyce Rupp, “leaning” into our grief releases us into God’s hands where his river of grace can carry us to eventual healing.
Here is this morning’s interview. Maybe this little snippet can help nudge you in the right direction.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear about Jesus opening the ears of a man who is unable to hear. Jesus also removes a speech impediment which had prevented the man from speaking clearly (Mark 7:31-37). Not surprisingly this man’s life is completely changed.
Did you know that blessings multiply? If you are familiar with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes then you know that when Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fishes, they multiplied enough to feed five thousand people.
I entered the line out of habit. The wait was long because the priest chose to do the blessings himself. Fr. Stephen LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester takes his liturgical responsibilities seriously, loving every ritual with fidelity and reverence. Each throat blessed received his utmost attention.
Desire for healing?
As I waited, I wondered why I was there. Did I believe in healing? Did I even want a healing? You may ask why someone might not desire a healing but when you get accustomed to being a certain way, change is hard to imagine. I was used to my voice being gone. I had accepted it.
Still, I remained in line, deciding it couldn’t hurt. I left the door open for possibilities, for anything God wished to give me.
Unfolding of a blessing
After receiving the blessing, I left the church in tears. What could possibly come of this? A few days later, the blessing began to unfold.
It began with an emotional healing.
Loss not private
When I initially lost my voice, I thought I could mourn in private. I could resign from music ministry at my parish and that would be the end of it. I was wrong. My singing was not a private, individual affair. I had shared it with a community and my loss impacted people. There were the other musicians who had to pick up the slack when I resigned. And there were the people who had enjoyed my singing. I should have been grateful for the many kind inquiries and offers of concern but instead I found it to be an intrusion. I didn’t want to accept my loss and thus I pushed music away from me. The inquiries and offers of concern pushed it right back at me. I couldn’t get away from my pain.
Thomas and his loss
It made me think of Thomas. Poor doubting Thomas. He was the one disciple who was not there when Jesus appeared to the apostles after the resurrection. Filled with joy to overflowing, they told Thomas they had seen the Lord and he would not believe. Hidden in a locked room out of fear, Thomas hid from his pain as well. It hurt too much to face it; thus he pushed away any semblance of hope that Jesus had risen. Just as I had pushed away any connection, any reminder of my music: it hurt too much. Healing through the wounds Thomas demanded to touch Jesus’ wounds. It was the only way he would believe.
A beautiful homily given by a newly ordained priest celebrating his first mass described what Jesus did for Thomas in response to his demands:
“‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Bring your hand and put it into my side. Hide yourself in me. Hide yourself from all that troubles you, from all you doubt, from all you fear. Hide yourself in a love more penetrating than a brush fire, more overwhelming than a deluge. Hide yourself in a love that will remake you entirely. Do not be afraid.’ Jesus invites Thomas to literally enter into his wounds of love, to pass so deeply into the reality of love incarnate as to move within it. To physically put himself into our Lord’s resurrected body, unconquered by everything that would seek to destroy love, to put to death all that smothered God’s life within him. To touch resurrection, to touch eternity. To hide himself in Christ’s love forever. But not to hide Christ’s love from the world. Not to remain behind locked doors. Not to continue in sadness and fear. Jesus fills Thomas with a love so transforming that he can proclaim without fear, without doubt, ‘My Lord and My God.’” Rev. Patrick E. Reidy, C.S.C., Basilica of the Sacred Heart, University of Notre Dame, April 27, 2014
Transformation through healing
Jesus transformed Thomas; he changed him from a man filled with fear, sadness and bitterness to a man who proclaimed his love for Jesus boldly throughout the world. He healed Thomas and Thomas embraced him. He healed me in the same way. Once at war with myself over the loss of my voice, I learned again to love music, to re-embrace my gift and to learn to use it in a new way.
Openness to God’s way
In the next post I will tell you how Jesus healed me. Like the loaves and fishes, it was a blessing that multiplied over and over. Remember when Jesus told the disciples to lower the net for another catch even though they had worked hard all night and caught nothing? The net was filled to overflowing.
That’s what happens when you leave the door open, just a bit, and let God have his way.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! So says Saint Paul in the fourth chapter of Philippians.
Each reading this third Sunday of Advent proclaimed joy:
Shout for joy, daughter Zion! sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 13:4)
Shout with exultation, City of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel! (Isaiah 12:6)
Amidst a sea of somber purple, the rose-colored candle was lit on the Advent wreath; a sign of joyful expectation for the Lord’s coming as Christmas day draws near.
Yet why does my heart not rejoice? Why is it that a mist hangs heavily over so many?
We all know why. A modern version of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents took place that past Friday in an idyllic, close-knit Connecticut town.
It was senseless and cruel when Herod ordered the original deed in his irrational desire to destroy the Christ Child. The first chapter of Exodus described the Pharaoh’s heartless decree to drown infant boys in his quest to slay the baby Moses.
And it is just as incomprehensible, just as heart-wrenching now knowing those twenty precious little children between the ages of six and seven, and six courageous women died an equally terrible death. Watching their families and friends in Newtown, CT careen from terror to shock and finally, to a grief so deep that it feels bottomless casts a pall over a joyful holiday. There appears to be no consolation.
And yet we were called to be joyful this Gaudate Sunday. We are expected to celebrate Christmas morning with our families while others will have unopened presents under the tree and an empty space at the dinner table.
I try to picture the children and the heroic adults who attempted to save them in the arms of Jesus, hovering over their families like the angels they are, trying to impart some consolation.
Will their loved ones be able to know it? To feel it?
The Christian faith teaches us that God is nearest in those moments when we cannot find the words or process the feelings or even lift our heads in our grief.
I think of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsame, begging for consolation from His Heavenly Father and the angels coming to minister to Him. He knew His Father was listening and therefore could experience their consolation.
All those new angels in Heaven are waiting and ready to offer that same consolation to their grieving loved ones.
Jesus calls on us to be alert, awake and ready: prepared to see Him at any turn.
I dig deep to pray that these grieving people will be able to recognize God in their midst and thus experience the ministering presence of their angels who long to offer consolation.
Grief is an opportunity, a moment of supreme and sublime vulnerability. It can be a time of transformation if we allow ourselves to be carried on the journey. It is tumultuous, frightening and exceedingly painful. If we are open, we can find that joy that Saint Paul talks about beneath the hurt. Slowly, gently, this joy can be the healing balm.
The newest angels up in Heaven are ready and waiting to apply the balm. The rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath can be the sign of their consolation.
So I will pray these grieving parents, siblings and husbands will be ready to receive that consolation and I invite you to do the same.