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.

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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”:

Lifted up and out—breaking free from dejection

jenny on my lapJUNE 20, 2016 — We all go through spells where we feel blue, even downright dejected. I know lately I’ve been waking up in the morning and feeling a sense of dread about facing a new day. Those fears and anxieties that lie just below the surface tend to be magnified in the wee hours of the morning before the alarm goes off. A quick cup of coffee, some time in prayer with Jenny on my lap purring, and those feelings begin to dissipate. Lately however, I’ve had a harder time getting them to leave me.

One of the psalms that I pray each morning describes dejection to the point of despair:

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

Psalm 88, 6-9 NIV

Most days I think of those I have known who have experienced that kind of despair. I think too of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, overcome by the knowledge of the suffering he would experience. But some days, I think of me.

I pride myself with knowing why I feel the way I do—I am introspective by nature, and to a fault. But lately I am not clear as to why I feel the way I do. Perhaps it’s the cycle of days seeming to go by faster and faster. It could be those small aches and pains of age reminding me that youth is long over. Maybe I need to stop paying attention to the news because the world no longer makes sense. Maybe I need to stop being so introspective!

I prayed to God today during that psalm and I prayed again during the one o’clock hour when I lift up petitions of healing for family and friends. I rarely include myself but today I did. I asked for grace to come up out of myself, to be lifted up and out. And my prayer was answered.

pedlar's progressI am reading an antique book printed in 1937 about an historical figure, Amos Bronson Alcott. The book is large, its pages browning, the paper soft to the touch. The spine is such that that the book stays open by itself. The cover is exquisite, vintage 1930s art in earth tones. The biographer is totally immersed in his subject, revealing to me the mind and the heart of one of recent histories’ biggest conundrums. Alcott was a man of extremes—at once brilliant, original, insightful while at the same time blind to the physical needs of his family, unable, unwilling at times to work to support them. He drew amazing creativity out of his daughters but inflicted great scars through his demands for perfection and virtue, causing one to become a workaholic to support the family while constantly striving to prove her virtue (Louisa) while another found that virtue perfectly in death rather than life (Lizzie).

peddlar's progressWith all his fatal flaws, Amos Bronson Alcott is a fascinating figure and Odell Shepherd, the biographer, writes about the man with incredible beauty and insight. Some call it “old-fashioned” but I say that Shepherd, because he wrote the book only forty-nine years after Alcott’s death, was closer to him that current biographers could ever hope to be. Perhaps the writing style is “dated;” the fact that there are no footnotes proves to be frustrating for scholars. But there is general agreement that the work is authentic. And that’s why it speaks to me.

And today during my lunch break as I read, scribbling notes in the margins, I found myself being lifted out of my dejection by the sheer beauty of the words and the tactile experience of holding that magnificent old book.

God answered my prayer. Through the experience of reading, I could be lifted out of the prison of myself, my eyes no longer dimmed with grief, my spirit no longer overcome with waves. Because I could get lost in the life of another through the exquisite writing of his biographer, I could receive a gift of grace.

We all have tools we use to help ourselves feel better when we are blue. Some like to listen to music, go for a walk, take a swim or see friends. These are all gifts of grace from God who knows our every need. In my case, rather late in life, I was given the grace to lose myself in a book and in the lives of fascinating historical figures.

Thank you Lord.

 

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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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“Is My Day Your Day?” Let’s talk about our spiritual lives.

MAY 1, 2016

Sometimes we need a place to jot down our thoughts and feelings.

  • We learn something new.
  • We screw up. Big time.
  • We receive a surprise blessing.

I wanted to establish this quiet space to share things as they happen to me with the hope that you will see yourself here too. Free free to comment and I will answer. Let’s talk and share.

I invite you to visit my spiritual journal called “Is My Day Your Day?”

In this journal I will be sharing insights I learn from scripture, experiences of prayer, encounters with people and with the world … whatever I run into that leads me to God.

I am hoping that in my sharing you will find something that resonates with your spiritual life.

We are never alone. God is with us and not just in church. He in our hearts and souls. He is in each one of us. And he is in the world around us.

Mark Ittleman Together, Flickr Creative Commons
Mark Ittleman Together, Flickr Creative Commons

I look forward to walking together with you and our Lord.

Click to Tweet & Share: Is My Day Your Day? Let’s talk about our spiritual lives. http://wp.me/p6vomf-1HF

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

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Meditating on the wounds of Christ

MARCH 31, 2016–Today’s meditation from The Word Among Us (based upon Luke 24:35-48) reflects upon the wounds Christ received at his death–wounds that remained on his glorified body after the resurrection:

“Jesus’ victory looked so different from what the disciples had expected. Instead of arriving with a king’s crown or a huge army, he returned bearing the wounds of a brutal death. Even though he is now risen in glory, his body remains marred. He isn’t just restored to his former state—he is transformed in a way that reflects the price he paid for our salvation. God didn’t just press a reset button. He took Jesus through death into a new and eternal life.

Jesus’ scars are the marks of his love for us—a love unto death. Every day, he invites us to gaze at these wounds and to see in them the proof of his victory. What’s more, he wants to convince us that he can turn our own wounds into marks of triumph. There is no situation too desperate for him to overcome.”

It may seem morbid to focus on such graphic wounds. But then I am reminded of the love behind those wounds, the love that gave Jesus the courage to follow through with his suffering so that we might know hope in this life and paradise beyond this life.

When I put together my sung rosary book (Mary, Queen of Peace Meditation Guide & Sung Rosary) I included a special meditation on those wounds, based upon a simple practice in Eastern Catholic prayer–that of repeating “Lord, have mercy!”

I invite you try this meditation and see where it leads. It’s led me to some pretty amazing spiritual places.

Meditations on the Wounds of Christ

5th sorrowful betania II full smallA prayer frequently chanted during the Divine Office in the Eastern Catholic Church is “Lord, have mercy.” Often this prayer is chanted 40 times in succession.

I formulated a method with this repetition that turned into a meaningful devotion focusing on the wounds of Christ:

  1. Gazing upon the crucifix, begin by reciting or chanting “Lord, have mercy” 5 times. Each time it is recited, focus on a wound on Christ’s body. For example, recite “Lord, have mercy” and meditate on Christ’s feet. Recite it again and focus on the left hand. Recite it a third time and meditate on the right hand. Recite it again and gaze on the wound in his side. Then recite it a fifth time and focus on the head.
  2. Repeat this cycle 8 times, thus reciting or chanting the prayer 40 times in total.I found, for example, that as I focused on the nail marks in His feet, I thought about where those feet had traveled. I studied the wounded hands and wondered whom they had healed. I thought about his heart, pierced and yet so full of love. I thought about the head and the emotional and mental agony he went through, and yet also marveled at all the wisdom and knowledge that resided in that head. I recalled his teachings, exhortations, and words of comfort.

These are just some of the places where this devotion can take you. May the Spirit of the Living Lord guide you as you gaze upon His wounds and contemplate His love.

I need you to put my life in perspective

MARCH 30, 2016–Today’s readings put forth a common theme–that we need each other. I loved the line from the meditation found at The Word Among Us website:

“There’s something about opening ourselves to other people that makes us more open to the Lord’s presence and his comfort.”

The meditation cites the examples of the two disciples walking to Emmaus, pouring themselves out to Jesus even though they did not recognize him. What they did recognize was his openness to their plight. He was willing to listen.

It also discusses the reading from Acts where Peter and John “give what they have” to the lame beggar–the healing power of Christ.

peter-and-john-at-the-beautiful-gate

The meditation concludes with the idea that we most often find God in one another.

Such discovery requires trust. I have to go out on a limb based upon my initial feelings about someone, and trust that they want to hear what I have to say.

It makes me think about the vibe I give out–does my face convey openness, or am I annoyed that you are bothering me? Am I sitting still and being attentive or am I fidgeting? Is my mind focused on you or pushing in the future, waiting for you to leave?

It’s not easy to trust. It’s a lot easier on my part to think that my problem is so “special” that no one will understand it and so I keep it to myself. That’s a form of pride. There is no problem that is unique to one individual. At least one other person in the world has been through my problems. If I go out on a limb and confide in another, will I find God waiting there to listen?

Learning about stillness

MARCH 13, 2016–LEARNING ABOUT STILLNESS

My latest column for the Catholic Free Press (which I will post on Tuesday) is about what I have been learning during this Lent about silence and stillness. Did you know there is a physical component to stillness within? I didn’t but I am learning.

I find it very hard to remain still, not only with my mind racing, but my body fidgeting. Honestly, I can’t sit still. Either I’m squirming in my chair trying to get comfortable (I have a chronic achy back, not serious, more of a nuisance) or scratching my head or fiddling with my hair or going after my phone.

A couple of weeks ago at Mass God gave me a gift of grace where I was able to experience true stillness. Not only was my mind still, focused solely on the altar and the priest, but my body was actually still. No fidgeting. No fixing my hair. Just totally still.

Today at mass it went further. I found myself no longer conscious of my body; thus I felt no pain in my back.

As a choir member, I have to stand for long periods of time and that can be rather painful. Often I will sit whenever I can, even if everyone else is standing. Today I made a conscious decision to remain standing because I was experiencing a sense of stillness. It focused my attention on God and away from my body and thus, I was able to ignore any back pain.

It gave me just a tiny clue as to how people in chronic pain who have a deep faith are able to cope. They are never free from pain but somehow, directing the focus to God perhaps helps to decrease the pain, making it more manageable. I’ve seen it with my friend Jackie who is often in pain.

Now granted, it is a monumental effort at times to reach that stillness (I often cannot overcome emotional pain). But the point of the matter is that there is something to stillness of the spirit spreading to the body.

Anthony Tong Lee Stillness, Flickr Creative Commons
Anthony Tong Lee Stillness, Flickr Creative Commons

Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light. Even in the most horrendous of situations.

Back in the choir loft–a humbling and pleasurable challenge

FEBRUARY 26, 2016–Glad to be back in the choir loft

Last night was choir practice. Another night driving in the rain. I’m not good at this going-out-at-night thing; it makes getting up the next morning harder somehow.

I knew that was going to be a stumbling block to joining choir. But I am so glad I joined the choir.

I love how the music lingers in my memory after practice. The radio in my head plays the songs in a constant loop. It creates this peaceful little buzz.

I’ve been listening almost exclusively to choral and classical music for the past several years. Having been in choirs before, I know what it takes to learn these pieces. There’s a lot of tedium involved (and a LOT of waiting  if you’re a soprano like me). I didn’t think I had the patience to learn the music. Besides, despite five years of piano as a kid and a lifetime making music, I don’t read music well.

I also haven’t been in a choir since the 1990s. I did solo singing all that time and now I have learn all over again how to work in a group. It has been a challenge.

A good challenge. A humbling challenge. And a very interesting challenge. And a pleasurable challenge.

Matúš Benian Choir Psallite Deo, Flickr Creative Commons
Matúš Benian Choir Psallite Deo, Flickr Creative Commons

One of the first things I had to learn was how to breathe in a group. Believe it or not, it’s quite different breathing in a group versus solo singing. One night I nearly passed out during rehearsal because I didn’t do it properly (luckily nobody noticed!).

Next, I had to learn to balance the volume of my singing between blending with everyone around me and contributing something to the group. My first inclination was to totally lose myself in the voices around me–that was pulling back too much. Now I am starting to push forward again, still looking for that balance, but contributing more to the group.

Blending with others when you have a heavy vibrato is a challenge! It’s impossible to smooth out my voice completely (and I probably shouldn’t) and I have yet to strike the proper balance. But it will come.

As we learn the pieces, I love meditating on the words. When the music comes together and we sing the song from beginning to end, the prayer becomes sublime.

And then it lingers in my head for days to come.

Yeah, so worth going out at night. So worth getting to church early. So nice being with others at mass, making a joyful noise for the Lord. So great being part of a community.

Yeah, I’m glad I rejoined the choir.

A light in the darkness–Braving night blindness to meet an inspiring young man

FEBRUARY 25, 2016–Driving in the rain and meeting an inspiring young man

How is your eyesight at night? Obviously it depends on your age. I will be 60 in a couple of weeks and my eyesight at night is TERRIBLE. I’ve taken to whispering a quick prayer every morning to St. Christopher to get me from point A to point B in one piece; I also keep his card in the car. I need him, especially in the rain! Driving in the rain at night is the worst. Honestly, I keep losing a sense of where I am because I can’t see marker points, and I just have to trust my gut that I know where I am going. The glare from the lights just blinds me. And is it me, or are headlights twice as bright as they used to be? Or does everyone just leave their high beams on? A downside to nearing 60 …

Jason Trbovich that saturday afternoon drive in the rain, Flickr Creative Commons
Jason Trbovich that saturday afternoon drive in the rain, Flickr Creative Commons

But, the upside is I get these wonderful freelance assignments from our local Catholic newspaper to cover stories. The last two assignments have taken me to a wonderful ecumenical prayer service at Assumption College, and a closing mass for a parish mission at St. Rose of Lima in Northborough. I love newspapers, having worked on both sides of the spectrum, as a production artist and now as a columnist and reporter. Life is good. God is good.

Anyway, last night I met an eighteen-year-old man who truly inspired me. A senior in high school, he has just become an altar server. Last night’s mass was his first mass and he was a poised and confident pro. I asked him after mass how he happened to make this unusual decision to become a server and he explained that the pastor, Father Houston, had invited him to serve. His first assignment? A military funeral. He spoke of the power of that funeral and how that experience led him to ask Father Houston if he could serve again. When I asked him what he wanted to study in college, he replied, “Criminology.,” and when I asked why, he said that he loved public service. Be still my heart.

It was worth driving at night in the rain to hear that story.

Confession as reconciliation–something I now look forward to

FEBRUARY 24, 2016–I used to dread going to confession; now I look forward to it!

I’ve been a Catholic since birth (60 years this March 19) and always dreaded going to confession. As a kid it was scary; as an adult it was embarrassing–I could never remember my sins! I mean I know I screw up big time but I never can remember the specifics. Thankfully I now have a tool based on the Ten Commandments to help me come up with those specifics.

If you are of another faith tradition, I know confession is hard to understand. Why should someone have to act as an intermediary between me and God when it comes to owning up to what I’ve done wrong? It all begins to make sense when you find the right confessor. Honestly, it’s like trying to find the right doctor or shrink–you have to know what you want in that person and be aware when you find it.

Our associate pastor, Father Jim, is the confessor I’ve been looking for. Such a patient listener, compassionate and quite wise for a man of thirty (my son is that age!). He’ll let me babble on trying to explain my sins to him only to assure me I’ve made a good confession. He then figures out the theme of my sins, offers good counsel and assigns a penance that makes sense, I feel tremendous relief and gratitude every time I confess to him. Honestly, I actually looked forward to going yesterday! I examined my conscience yesterday morning, made my list and waited all day to see Father Jim.

God is near, we know that. Some Christian faith traditions believe the Eucharist is the physical presence of Jesus. But there is something about spilling your guts to another human being, especially one who has been ordained and appointed by God to help. And help it does.

I hope you’re as lucky as I in finding a good confessor.

en.wikipedia.org
en.wikipedia.org