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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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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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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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.

Thank you Lord

Thank you Lord, for all you’ve done for me.

Why is fasting so difficult? Looking for answers.

Note: This is my latest column for the Catholic Free Press. I also invite you to read my feature article in found on the Catholic Free Press website: St. Gabriel Lenten project to spread peace and joy

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

Lent is upon us. In our household this means an extended period of fasting. My husband is a deacon in the Eastern Catholic Church (Melkite) and thus is required to fast for the entire season. That means that as his wife and support, I must too.

Fasting challenge

Fasting in the Eastern Church is rigorous — no meat, no dairy; fish is limited to shell fish. If we were in our twenties with no health issues this would still be difficult to follow. In our early sixties, we both observe diets that benefit our health. This diet eliminates most starch from our meals (pasta, beans, rice, etc.). Watching our cholesterol precludes eating shell fish regularly. There is not much left to eat, especially if you are not a good cook.

Heather Cheese straws Flickr Creative Commons

Even as I write this it sounds like a pathetic lament. But I confess that I find fasting very difficult. The reason is because after doing this for several years, it is still an empty obligation. I have yet to find the spiritual benefit from the fast.

Body as well as spirit

I am well aware of the arguments. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Orthodox faith has written a helpful pamphlet, “When You Fast” which I have read many times and annotated. He says never to treat fasting in a legalistic way, as an end in itself. At the same time, fasting reminds us that man is both body and spirit; St. Paul states that, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 6:19) urging us to glorify God with our bodies. Bishop Kallistos writes of our willingness to fast in order to lose weight; “cannot we as Christians do as much for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom?” That pricked at my conscience as one who fasts year round to keep my weight in check. I admit that it’s easier to do that because I get the instant gratification of stepping on the scale and seeing that I am successful. Lenten fasting lacks such earthly reward.

Getting beneath the surface

I know that the purpose of fasting is not for payback. But I long for it to be something more than counting down the days until it is finished. It is painful to admit that the sameness of the meals and the added complications when it comes to shopping bother me a great deal. How I wish I had some inner understanding of why all of this is good and necessary for me to draw closer to God.

The arguments for fasting

Intellectually I am aware of the arguments for fasting. Bishop Kallistos writes that, “The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” Our discomfort (hunger pangs, tiredness) reminds us of our “inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us … to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement ‘Without Me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)”

Leading to prayer

Fasting is supposed to lead to prayer but for me it is still an empty exercise. How can I make my knowledge of fasting penetrate my stone cold heart?

Oméga * Femme priant – Woman praying Flickr Creative Commons

In one sense it is leading me to a simple prayer: “Lord, please show me how to fast such that it makes me more aware of You.” Remembering from St. Paul that we are to pray always, this will be my consistent daily prayer.

What is your experience?

I’d now like to ask: What does fasting mean to you? How do you make it work? What spiritual lessons have you learned from your fasting? Please share your experience in a comment. Perhaps through our community I and others like me can figure out the mystery of fasting through our mutual sharing.

In the meantime let us keep each other in prayer that we may fast in a more worthy manner.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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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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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When faith is tested: He’s got this.

My monthly Catholic Free Press/Catholic mom column.

When I awoke to the news of the massacre in Las Vegas, I felt numb inside. It was all too much. First the hurricanes in Texas and Florida. Then the devastation in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. And now this. (And after initially writing this, the fires in Northern California). I had not been directly affected by any of these events and yet a heavy sense of dread lay on my heart as I began to pray for those who had been affected. In reciting words that praised God and spoke of his protection, I felt a thud inside my heart saying, “no, they had not been protected.”

Where is God?

Later in the day I had a short conversation with a good friend on Twitter. She had written, “Las Vegas makes us ask God: where are you? The answer: God is here, asking the same question of us: ‘Where are you?’ Seek and let him find you.” I answered, “Got to admit, this one is shaking my faith a bit. I will never abandon my faith and I will always love God, but it did give me pause.” She answered, “I understand. What God permits is always jarring, but He sees the whole picture. That doesn’t make it any easier to trust Him.”

She thought her reply had not helped but in fact, it did. I felt the burden lift just a bit at the thought of God alone knowing the whole picture. I answered, “Actually, in a way, it does. He’s got this. Thank you; your words brought me comfort.”

He’s got this.

It’s not for me or for any of us to know the entire picture. He sees the world in its entirety from the beginning until the end of time. I don’t know why that comforts me, but it does. It is not within my ability to be omnipotent and therefore, not my responsibility to know it all. I am only asked to know enough to offer prayers and supplication, to lend a hand, to offer some words of comfort.

All I ever have to be …

This all reminds me of a song written by Gary Chapman and sung by Amy Grant,

“And all I ever have to be is what
You’ve made me
Any more or less would be a step out of Your plan
As you daily recreate me help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find
… all I ever have to be is what You made me.”

One day at a time

It’s the same idea. None of us were made with the capacity to carry the whole world on our shoulders. And that is a comfort to me. Somebody Else is in charge of that. All I have to do each day is to do what I am supposed to do. I can’t physically be in Houston or the Keys or San Juan or Las Vegas. But I can pray. I can carry these people in my thoughts and in my heart. I can choose a favorite charity and donate. I can give blood even though it may not be of help in Las Vegas; it will, however, help someone in my own backyard.

The suffering in our world is overwhelming; it’s impossible for me to wrap my head around it. Thankfully I am not asked to do that. I can leave it to the Lord; He’s got this.

A prayer

“Lord, guide me in your wisdom to those little things I can do to help ease some of the suffering of this world. Chase away my dread and those nagging doubts and show me what I can do in this moment to be of help. And please, keep reminding me that all I ever have to be what is You made me.”

Listen to Amy Grant singing the song:

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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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Recognizing the creative person within

I manage a blog for a dear friend with a beautiful heart. I just had to share her latest post with you. It reflects what I wrote in chapter 5 of my book, River of Grace, which describes a similar idea — that we are all called to create with what we have been given. To find that storehouse of creative energy, we must get in touch with our Creator who fuels that energy. My friend Brunhilde uses her creativity to inspire us to come closer to God. The beauty of her paintings and her words is a great way to start that movement towards the One who created our vast world, and us, out of nothing. We in turn, have all of his creation at our disposal to use towards bettering our world and drawing closer to each other in love.

Brunhilde has recommended a book that I will be ordering for myself soon.

I hope you enjoy this lovely reflection.

Psalm 42:2-3, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God.” When I created this painting I truly cried out to the Lord, not in sadness but in love to […]

via In Prayer and Meditation — Brunhilde Luken, artist and writer

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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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Good Friday multi-media meditations to fit your schedule

I wish to offer to you a couple of Good Friday meditations.

Short meditation

If you only  have a few minutes today, here is a short meditation on the Stations of the Cross:

Longer meditation

If you have 45 minutes to meditate, try this meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary with scripture and sung prayers:

May you have a meaningful, blessed day today and a Happy Easter. Remember that with God, we can overcome anything and come out transformed.

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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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