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!
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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”:

Another great discovery right under my nose!

Remember when I posted about discovering a little piece of heaven across the street from my house? After living there for twelve years?

Looks like I’ve found another treasure in my town. Continue reading “Another great discovery right under my nose!”

On the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye

In my quest for a harmonious life I understand the need to be still. Certain tools help in that effort:

  • Reading, to organize my thoughts.
  • Praying, to tap into my soul, drawing me closer to God.
  • Time spent outdoors, especially in the Spring, to quiet myself.

Achieving mindfulness

The landscape is slowly coming to life here in New England and when I see signs of Spring, I think of Henry David Thoreau. His intimate knowledge of the outdoors came from a sense of mindfulness–no detail missed his watchful eye. He took the time to be still and observe. And in following that simple maxim, the world revealed itself to him.

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New book on Thoreau

I recently reviewed a book on my Louisa May Alcott blog by Corinne Hosfeld Smith (certified tour guide of the Thoreau birthplace and author of Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey) called Henry David Thoreau for Kids:

thoreau for kids

Demanding writer

I welcomed this book because while I have always appreciated Thoreau’s message, I find his his works difficult to get through. The writing is dense, demanding your full attention. Many of us suffered through high school and college English classes with his classic Walden. And yet, that message of a different way of living got through to me even though I could not begin to digest all the words.

Making Thoreau concrete

What I loved about Henry David Thoreau for Kids were the twenty-one activities geared for middle school students that help you live out his ideas. Many of these activities are just as engaging for adults.

I was intrigued by the exercise which encouraged the participant to sit outdoors for thirty minutes in total silence, waiting for wildlife to appear. Sure enough, after a few moments birds and other creatures come close for observation. I was eager to try this exercise in my quest to be still.

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Helpful tool

Stillness, however, does not come easily in this busy world so I was grateful that Smith recommended another exercise to help me focus–creating a sound map.

Sitting in my lawn chair, I sketched the area you see here in my notebook and every time I heard a sound from nature, I drew an “x” where I thought I heard it and wrote down what it was. As you can see, I heard quite a bit!

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From listening to observing

In the listening, I began to appreciate the visual imagery around me.

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Stillness opens the inner eye

Stillness and mindfulness are hard to achieve in this high tech, multi-tasking, noisy world. Patience and due diligence are rewarded however with the opening of the inner eye, that which sees beauty and truth around us and eventually, within us. It’s a simple truth really: the wonder of life and how it was created, and how we are lucky to be alive despite all the challenges.

Houghton MS Am 1506 (4)-Cranch
Houghton MS Am 1506 (4)-Cranch

A compatriot of Thoreau’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote of the transparent eyeball, an expression for which he was mocked. Wikipedia explains it this way:

 “The transparent eyeball is a philosophical metaphor originated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transparent eyeball is a representation of an eye that is absorbent rather than reflective, and therefore takes in all that nature has to offer.”

Emerson experienced an epiphany that day–the discovery of the ability to read between the lines in the world around him, and come to an understanding of a deeper existence within him.

Once that eye is opened …

… you never want it to close. All of a sudden, the smallest things become lovely, compelling, even exciting. Once I became mindful of what surrounded me in the natural world, I couldn’t get enough of it, especially when it came to bird watching and kayaking.

And once I made a commitment to pay attention to what was there inside of me, allowing myself to to be drawn closer to my Creator, I find I can’t get enough of that either.

Silence is becoming an elixir.

I understand from the great mystics that you can learn to be quiet and still even in the midst of noise and chaos. Wouldn’t that be something! Somehow I think a bunch of people with that kind of inner harmony could truly change the world for the good. Think about it.

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Your time of stillness

Try spending thirty minutes in the woods, in a field or by a pond this Spring. Create your own sound map and share it here. Let’s compare notes and find out how we are doing on our journey to harmony.

You can find out more about Henry David Thoreau for Kids here, and read about the author, Corinne Hosfeld Smith, here.

Click to Tweet & ShareOn the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye http://wp.me/p2D9hg-1IH

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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).

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

 

 

 

Confession of a timid soul

My latest Catholic Free Press column.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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”

Love begets love: how can something you love to do spread love to others?

This past Tuesday I did something I love doing.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have several chapters of WINGS, an organization dedicated to gathering together women of faith in an effort to support and deepen that faith.

wingshead

I was pleased to be invited to speak this past Tuesday at Christ the King Parish in Worcester, MA, at their first WINGS meeting of the season. I presented my “Let’s Go Swimming!” talk with songs, ending with a rousing rendition all together of “Can You Teach Me?” Continue reading “Love begets love: how can something you love to do spread love to others?”

True unity that brings all things together

Unity in the Heart of God

“Love unites all, whether created or uncreated …”

This is the beginning of a short meditation by noted spiritual writer (and my favorite), Henri Nouwen.

You can read the rest here.

This short passage utterly sums up the purpose of this blog, and my life.

How about you? What sums up your life?

Click to Tweet & Share: True unity, as Henri Nouwen sees it. Sums up my life. How about yours? What sums up your life? http://wp.me/p2D9hg-iB

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Review: Jeff Goins’ impressive new book, WRECKED “slams” into life as we know it

Pain, suffering and sacrifice are dirty words in today’s world, meant to be avoided at all costs. In the process, the meaning and value have been lost.

Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life, the impressive debut book by blogger Jeff Goins not only restores the meaning to suffering and sacrifice, but exhorts the reader to value, embrace and learn from them.

What does it mean to be “wrecked?”

Goins describes it as a painful, often messy experience that opens your eyes to a new life. It is transformative, introducing you to sacrificial love if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

He shares experiences in his life that have “wrecked” him, the first one taking place in Spain while spending a semester overseas.

Putting a name to the poor

Goins met a homeless man and quickly developed a relationship with him. The “poor” suddenly became a flesh and blood person with a name and Goins grew to care about him. It was a first of many experiences that would alter his life course forever.

Why Wrecked is important

  • It is a radical book, “slamming” into the conventions of
    21st century life
    :
    “Our culture is so individualistic and wired for success that we often miss the point of life. We think it’s about self-actualization, about becoming the best version of ourselves. It’s not. It’s about losing ourselves.” (pg. 40, ebook)
  • It is counter to everything society says is necessary for
    “the good life:”

    “We are conditioned to believe life is supposed to be comfortable. But ask anyone like my friend Matt who has radically changed his life, and they’ll tell you the best decisions they made were when they were uncomfortable … What we have to learn to do is lean into the things that hold us back, to move through the pain and push forward.” (pg. 42, ebook)
  • It gets to the core of the Gospel of Jesus, a core that is often sanitized, glossed over in favor of the warm and fuzzy “God loves you.”
    Instead it confronts the Cross:
     “If we are to follow the Jesus who suffered with us and bled for us, we too must suffer.” (pg. 33, ebook).

Christian without being “Christian”

Wrecked imparts the core message without mucking it up with a lot of “church speak.” This book, although produced by a Christian publisher, speaks clearly to all people with a language that anyone who is searching for the meaning of his or her life will understand.

A book for Millennials

Even though there is much written about mission work and social justice (as this is Goins’ experience), don’t be fooled by this emphasis – this is not a book on becoming a missionary. Wrecked is the handbook for the Millennial generation. A Millennial himself, Goins spells out the problems, diagnoses them and offers the cure.

Wrecked also shouldn’t be construed as just another self-help book or spiritual guide. It is rather the authentic account of someone who writes honestly, understands spirituality and has “been-there-done-that.”

Imperfections

Wrecked isn’t perfect. Goins’ trajectory for the journey of life (having adventures when you’re young and making long term commitments as you get older) is sound but maintains that if you don’t have these adventures when you are young, you will spend the rest of your life trying to recapture your youth or relive old dreams (pg. 71, ebook).

Obviously that is true in many cases but what he doesn’t take into account are late bloomers like me and the whole idea of second chances. I was too timid in my youth to have adventures and married young, raising two children. Losing my parents between 2003 and 2010 “wrecked” me and subsequently transformed my life. Now in my 50s I am pursing the creative vocation I believe God has called me to with total dedication, confidence and commitment. I did things backwards – committing first (to my vocations as wife and mother) and having my adventure later on.

Priorities

My other problem with Wrecked is one I see frequently with regards to Christians and service – that of the the cart being put before the horse.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22), He presented two: loving God and then loving neighbor, making it clear that loving God needed to comes first. A close, loving relationship with our Creator results in a pouring forth of grace which empowers us to love and serve our neighbor. Being immersed in God allows us to see Him in others and the desire to serve becomes irresistible.

Goins mentions the Gospel story of Martha (the busy one) and Mary (the introspective one) but fails to mention Mary and the need to take the time to sit at the feet of God. I can’t be sure if he assumes the reader knows this or not. He does stress the importance of taking care of our inner lives and he also makes it clear we need to let go and allow God to lead but I was hoping for a more direct connection between taking care of ourselves and allowing God to take care of us.

Committed to Wrecked

That being said, I bought a copy of Wrecked as a going away present for my Millennial son who is heading to New York City from sleepy central Massachusetts at the end of this month.

I also got the Wrecked ten-week study guide which I intend to use with my eleventh-grade Sunday School class. And I’ve recommended it to a deacon friend of mine who runs a young adult book club at his church.

My advice: commit yourself to Wrecked.

Click to Tweet & Share: Jeff Goins’ impressive debut book, Wrecked, “slams” into life as we know it http://wp.me/p2D9hg-1k

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