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.

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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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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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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”:

January promises of silence and stillness

My January 2018 column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.

The month of January promises many things:

  • The emotional letdown after Christmas.
  • The return to work after a long vacation.
  • The loneliness of an empty house after the children have gone to theirs.
  • Hunkering down with the cold and snow.
  • New beginnings with the new year.
  • Silence, and emptiness.
By Denis Collette (2011) via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

All during the busyness and noise of the holidays I longed for what January would bring. While I’m no fan of winter weather I appreciate the permission it grants to curl up in front of the fire with a good book, a steaming cup of coffee and a purring cat.

The silence is a welcomed guest whom I wish would stay with me always; it is elusive, fleeing at the slightest distraction. Emptiness signals a time to be filled.

What will I fill it with?

My emptiness is not just because of children I miss. It is certainly not due to lack of activity (for this I accept with gladness). It’s not because it is cold and gray outside rather than warm and green.

There is something else I miss far more.

It manifests itself in a gnawing feeling, a sense of arms reaching out for something, for someone. It’s that longing described in the scriptures as the deer panting for water.

By Jun Aoyama (2005) via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

An empty spirit that is sorry for prayers not said, for people neglected, for preferring worldly idols, for being consumed with self rather than with others. Longing for my Beloved who seems so far away and yet is so close to me that I cannot perceive Him.

January is a month of silence.

The birds not only do not sing but don’t even come to the feeder. The cold keeps people inside of their houses. Nighttime activities abate. It’s a time of promise, a gift, an invitation to draw near to my Beloved. Silence issues an invitation to hear His whisper in my heart. The quiet permits me to see those small signs that will lead me home.

By Luigi Alesi (2008) via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

What will those signs be?

What will He whisper to me? How long must I wait in silence?

Drawing upon past experience I know that the quiet will yield its reward no matter how long I have to wait. God works best in silence and often He will remain the background, revealing Himself in His time, at the best possible moment.

So I will wait, confident of His presence even if I may not feel it just yet. I will return to being faithful to my prayers, read his Word and ask for the grace to turn from myself to others. In the proper time, when my heart is truly silent, my Beloved will make Himself known.

January will fulfill her promise.

 

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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Can’t go away on retreat? Try this stay-at-home multi-media retreat for Lent, “A Journey Within”

Jesus in the desert

Welcome to this Lenten Mini Retreat of self-examination and discovery:
“The Journey Within: Seeing Ourselves in the Eyes of God by Following the Path of Jesus”

This retreat consists of an hour-long presentation of word and song. It is broken up into sections and features several short videos. You do not need to do the entire retreat in one sitting. In fact, I recommend that you do a portion each day over several days so that the lessons really sink in.

You will need three additional items in order to participate in this retreat:

Following the example of Jesus

I present this retreat to show that by following our Lord’s example we find that the journey of self-discovery is not a self-indulgent act but one of love, towards ourselves and our Creator. It is an act of humility where we come face to face with the ugly truths and weaknesses in our lives and give them over to God. It is a fruitful action, empowering us with the confidence and vision to carry out the wonderful life plan that God has given to us.

This presentation is drawn from chapter 6 my book, River of Grace. You will be led on a rich journey where you begin to see yourself as God’s beloved child, fearfully and wonderfully made with a glorious mission to fulfill.

Let’s begin.

  1. Listen to Part One of this retreat–it is the longest segment, lasting approximately 34 minutes:

a. Watch the video:

2. Listen to Part Two (3 minutes, 55 seconds):

a. Watch the video:

3. Listen to Part Three (6 minutes, 35 seconds):

a. Watch the video and sing along:

4. Listen to Part Four (1 minute, 50 seconds):

a. Watch the video:

5. Listen to Part Five (1 minute, 41 seconds):

a. Watch the video and sing/pray along:

6. Listen to the last portion, Part Six (13 minutes, 1 second):

I hope you have enjoyed this mini retreat–perhaps it will lead to a lifelong habit of self-discovery. Remember always to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and follow every footstep of his path.

Citations:

  • 00 cover smallThis retreat quotes extensively from Chapter 6 of River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times
    by Susan Bailey and published by Ave Maria Press. Flow Lesson handouts also come from this book.
    Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey
  • “Lead Me to the Wilderness” copyright 2016 Susan W. Bailey
  • “In His Eyes” sung by Mindy Jostyn; written by Mindy Jostyn and Jacob Brackman, available on the album In His Eyes. Song used by permission.

Share with your friends

Going on a retreat with a friend can make it extra special. You can easily share this retreat with your friends
on social media – just click on the links below:

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Share on Facebook

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

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Be a Light: Living Christmas through Advent by Father Steven LaBaire

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

The Advent wreath, located on the right side of the sanctuary is a centuries-old Christian tradition.

Christine McIntosh Advent wreath completed, Flickr Creative Commons
Christine McIntosh Advent wreath completed, Flickr Creative Commons

The wreath itself is rich in symbolism: Evergreens signify undying life; life even amidst the barrenness of winter.

The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning and no end, symbolizes the eternity of God, and everlasting life found in Christ.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent.

Three candles are violet and one is rose. The violet candles represent the color of the sky before sunrise; a sign of hope and a new beginning.

The rose candle lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, signifies the joy that hope and a new beginning bring.

The progressive lighting of the candles expresses light overcoming darkness; the light of Christ conquering whatever is contrary to love, mercy and compassion.

Of course, the wreath is meant to signify what Christ calls us to do: Bring light to wherever there is darkness.

Darkness is not confined to San Bernadino, California or Paris, or to the hearts of those who would wish us or anyone harm.

All kinds of shadows and shades of darkness can be found around us:

  • In the home where a child is beaten by hands or by hurtful words;
  • In the office where injustices and dishonesty are overlooked in the name of profit;
  • In the loveless marriage where partners are deaf to the needs of the one they promised to love and cherish;
  • In the residence where the elderly waste away, abandoned by their families;
  • On the playing field sidelines where the push to win the game at all costs, crushes a child’s feelings;
  •  Among friends when an addiction is never addressed;
  •  In our mouths when we speak criticism without being willing to help in the solution;
  • In cyberspace when a 14 year feels as if her reputation has been destroyed;
  • In popular culture, when prayer is mocked and faith is labeled as a “weakness of the intellect.”
  • In that family, where the gay son has been disowned and told that he does not belong;
  • Or, in a parish, when numbers of people and the almighty dollar are more important than fidelity to what Christ taught.
martinak15 83/365 Light in the Darkness, Flickr Creative Commons
martinak15 83/365 Light in the Darkness, Flickr Creative Commons

None of us are strangers to shadows. We pass through them every day.

Advent beckons us to bring light to wherever there is darkness, whatever be the shade.

How are you being called to bring  “light” to someone, somewhere?

Pray for an increase of light. Pray for the nerve (and for the energy) to be that light.

Amen.
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Keep up with news and free giveaways regarding Susan’s new books, River of Grace
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Susan Bailey, Author, Speaker, Musician on Facebook and Twitter
Read Susan’s blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

Find Susan’s books here on AmazonPurchase Susan’s CD.

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?”