In Preparation for Ash Wednesday – a Reflection

monkimageAsh Wednesday is a day that unites all Christians. Even though it isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics it has become a priority. Why is it so important to us? In New Orleans one could speculate that we are motivated by guilt following all those king cakes and carnival parades. But I think it is more than that. Is it fear of death and judgement?  Maybe it is. But I think what we are really searching for is hope. Hope that we can be forgiven, hope that death is not the end.

To quote Cardinal Pio Laghi, “Every year on Ash Wednesday, the Church begins a spiritual journey, a renewal of her existence and a rediscovery of her life with God.”  The spiritual journey Laghi  describes is rooted in the words Catholics will hear when ashes are placed on their forehead on Ash Wednesday: “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”  Like the Prodigal Son we should turn away from darkness, evil, and death and begin walking home towards light, goodness, and life. From this perspective the ashes become a sign of turning away from death. This is a distinct change from the older “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” approach that motivated good action based on fear of death and eternal punishment. Jesus did not base his good news on fear: Jesus preached the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God. Jesus gave people HOPE, and this is the message that the Christian faith presents to us on Ash Wednesday. It’s the Christian do-over. And, like the Prodigal Son, at some point we could all use a do-over.

But how do we go about making this change?

Growing up Catholic I learned a ritual performed before the reading of the Gospel. The words are based on the Jewish Shema prayer, the Greatest Commandment. May God be in my mind, in my words, and in my heart: In other words – in my thinking, in my speaking, and in my loving or doing. Jesus connected this Commandment written in Deuteronomy Chapter 6, to a verse from Leviticus chapter 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments sum up all of God’s law: Love God in your thoughts words and actions, and love your neighbor as yourself.

So this is how we change; this is how we make Ash Wednesday really mean something; and this is how we go forward into Lent. By focusing on God’s love and rejecting negative and destructive thoughts about ourselves or others, by speaking words that are charitable and caring, by acting always for the good.

An easy message to understand; but one that takes a life of commitment and re-commitment: Turn away from death and towards life; reject fear and live in hope.


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Letting Go of the Illusion of Control

In the face of recent flooding in the South and natural disasters worldwide, I offer this excerpt from my book …


After Katrina I heard this comment from a Lakeview resident who had lost everything,

          It wasn’t personal. I just have to deal with it. 

What she was commenting on was the fact that God didn’t chose to hurt her by destroying her house. It just happened. For many of us that seems insufficient as an answer. Weren’t we always told that God was in charge? And isn’t what happened all part of God’s plan? Doesn’t that make it intensely personal? And surely if she had been faithful to God and obeyed the church rules, God would have answered her prayers and kept her and her house safe, right? Apparently not! God doesn’t look at prayer that way, it seems.

I am reminded of that joke about the man who wouldn’t leave his house during a flood because he believed God would save him. As the water rose in the street, a neighbor offered him a ride out in his truck.

           No. God is going to save me, Was his response.

As the water entered his house his cousin came by in a boat and was met with the same refusal. Finally, as the water lapped at his roof, a Red Cross helicopter flew overhead and offered to pull him to safety. Again he refused. And soon he drowned. When he arrived at the Pearly Gates he was really ticked off and demanded an audience with the Almighty.

           You promised to save me! He challenged.

God raised his hands in frustration and replied,

           But I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter!

I have always sympathized with the man in this joke. He exhibits the kind of naïve faith in prayer that my mother raised me on. Pray for a miracle and God will send back the floods. But I have discovered that prayer doesn’t work like that. I have had to let go of my childish understanding of God and my unrealistic expectations for prayer. This too is a form of loss. I have come to accept that I cannot control what happens to me, however much I pray, I can only control how I react to what happens. I cannot control other people’s behavior, or protect my sons from heartache and disappointment. I cannot control the weather, I cannot control who gets sick and dies, and I cannot control God.

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Seneca on Anxiety

… But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in keeping us constantly tensed against an imagined catastrophe, it prevents us from fully living. He ends the letter with a quote from Epicurus illustrating this sobering point:
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.”

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When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.



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Oh My Soul

Oh, my soul
Oh, how you worry
Oh, how you’re weary, from fearing you lost control
This was the one thing, you didn’t see coming
And no one would blame you, though
If you cried in private
If you tried to hide it away, so no one knows
No one will see, if you stop believing

Oh, my soul
You are not alone
There’s a place where fear has to face the God you know
One more day, He will make a way
Let Him show you how, you can lay this down
‘Cause you’re not alone

Here and now
You can be honest
I won’t try to promise that someday it all works out
‘Cause this is the valley
And even now, He is breathing on your dry bones
And there will be dancing
There will be beauty where beauty was ash and stone
This much I know

Oh, my soul
You are not alone
There’s a place where fear has to face the God you know
One more day, He will make a way
Let Him show you how, you can lay this down

I’m not strong enough, I can’t take anymore
(You can lay it down, you can lay it down)
And my shipwrecked faith will never get me to shore
(You can lay it down, you can lay it down)
Can He find me here
Can He keep me from going under

Oh, my soul
You’re not alone
There’s a place where fear has to face the God you know
One more day, He will make a way
Let Him show you how, you can lay this down
‘Cause you’re not alone
Oh, my soul, you’re not alone

Publishing: © 2016 Be Essential Songs (BMI) (adm. at Refuge Music (BMI) (adm. at of Universal, Inc. (BMI)/G650 Music (BMI)

Writer(s): Mark Hall, Bernie Herms

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Spirituality – What is it? My continued search.


What is your understanding of spirituality? This is a fundamental question for someone in chaplaincy, don’t you think? But I find I can’t easily answer it. One image comes to mind is from the movie Major League, where a baseball player, who can’t hit a curve ball to save his life, is praying to his personal god, Jobu, at a shrine he has set up in his locker. I think chickens and snakes were involved.

It’s not at all uncommon for people to associate spirituality with religious ritual and with asking the gods for favors. But there is a meaning to spirituality that transcends religion. Religion is a human construct that develops in response to wonder and awe, to questions about the origin and significance of life and the relationship of a certain group or nation to the source of all life and the controller of all destiny. It grew into different variations dependent on the culture and the specific cultural wisdom-teachers who were identified as religious leaders or even gods. Spirituality comes out of, in response to, personal experience of “something else” at work in the world and in one’s life.

Religions aren’t the same and they don’t offer the same answers, regardless of attempts to gloss over the differences by some sociologists of religion. But what religions do share are the questions, because they are fundamentally universal, human questions. Religions grow out of sacred narratives, stories of where we come from as a tribe, nation, world. Stories about the power of, and control of, nature and history. Stories that respond to our fear of dying and our desire for life to make sense and to be ultimately fair.

Spirituality does not necessarily grow out of religious practice. Religious practice is something we usually learn as part of our childhood ritual and tradition. More often than not we go through a period of rejection of our religious history as a part of the inevitable establishment of our Self as apart from our parents. Spirituality, on the other hand is not something passed down, not something assimilated or absorbed from our educational or home environments. Spirituality develops when we step out into the universe and experience our existential aloneness and all of a sudden the questions we answered in religion class become personal: Why am I here? Why was I born at all? What’s the point of being good, or doing good things if there is no Ultimate reality? And can we be sure there is?

If, in the midst of our existential questioning, we have an experience of personal awe and wonder. If we find ourselves touched by an incredible joy we don’t feel worthy of. If we experience beauty in the creations of artists and musicians and writers. If we are touched by the majesty and mystery of the world into which we have been lucky enough to be born. If we find ourselves alone at night in the midst of a crisis and discover a feeling that we are not – after all – alone. Then we have experienced the beginnings of a personal spirituality.

For many years spirituality and religion were inseparable for me. I would be transported by the beauty and serenity of a church, the magnificence of choral music, the tenderness of contemporary Christian rock songs, and the profound experience of personal redemption communicated through biblical readings, prayers, rituals and sacraments. But then I faced a religious crisis, and the rituals and sacraments, the music and liturgy, all lost their power to raise my spirits or heal my heart. And prayer? I didn’t know who or what to pray to any more. I had led a liturgical music group for over 25 years and now I couldn’t even sing.

So what happened? I found myself connecting in a different way to the natural world. Not to chickens and snakes – no offense to Jobu – but to trees. I had always felt an affinity to trees, their solidity, their willingness to give us shade, to provide us with fruit and even with their very substance – wood. The Giving Tree story really touched me as a teenager, but not just as an allegory – it made me love trees! This wasn’t entirely new in my life. I had always felt safe around trees and as a child the outside world had often felt safer than the inside of my own home. And later as an adult, disaffected Catholic I turned to the wisdom and support of trees once more. This was something my Druid brother could relate with and I was glad to have that connection to him. Connecting to trees helped me connect to myself, where I was in the moment; they grounded me. The Japanese have developed a contemporary practice called “forest bathing” which is simply, but profoundly, spending time immersed in the woods. Apparently there are tangible, measurable health benefits from spending time in a forest.

Connecting to trees helped me to see that my life story was part of a much bigger story; I was part of a bigger reality. The trees seemed to talk to me as the wind swept through their branches. To tell me that even when the branches didn’t move there was another presence, a life force, always there. I would watch as the wind passed from one treetop to the next, as if in conversation. And I was offered the thought that there was something more, something beyond the physical world we could appreciate with our senses; something within and also beyond what we see and experience. And it was in this something more, something beyond, that ultimate meaning lay. Trees helped give me some perspective back – all life dies; all life recycles. There is a sense of eternal life in nature, in the very way in which our world continues to recreate itself season after season, generation upon generation.

Spirituality is not about finding answers to the questions, it is about coming to accept the questions as part of the human experience, and it is about becoming grateful for being here.  I believe spirituality is about connectedness, about being part of the same human community, world, universe. It is about asking the question “Why am I here” and discovering the answer is compassion: for ourselves and each other. I continue to pursue my own meaning; I have developed a practice of mindfulness and gratitude, and I attempt always to connect to other people and to the natural world with compassion. And that is what spirituality has come to mean for me.

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Loss is like a tsunami

imageIn New Orleans we are very aware of the power of great waves pushed up by hurricanes. Driving along the coast recently I was reminded of this power and how much had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

The loss of a loved one can be compared to the power of the hurricane tidal wave: it drags off someone we love and leaves devastation in its wake; the landscape of our life is forever changed. We look around and we recognize the pieces of our lives but they are all scattered, out of place. Some are damaged beyond recognition. Some merely broken. And the realisation that we have to rebuild everything again feels overwhelming, impossible, unreasonable. We just want to sit down in the midst of the devastation and quit. But we can’t. There are other people who have been made emotionally homeless along with us and we have to pick ourselves up for their sake and begin to build a new shelter, a new emotional home, a new sense of safety.

So we gather the pieces together, we reclaim our foundation and we start to rebuild.

It has been 12 years since Katrina and the coast boasts new construction on higher foundations. But in between the new houses are empty lots still unreclaimed, whose owners barely manage to keep the grass under control. Having given up and decided to rebuild their lives somewhere else the owners don’t even want to visit any more.

It has been ten years this March since my oldest son, Malcolm, died. My husband and I are still together, our emotional home has been rebuilt. We have hope and joy; we share holidays with our youngest son and extended family; we build new memories. But in our emotional house, as in our physical house, remains a room full of scattered pieces of Malcolm’s life. We visit the physical room, using it for hanging up shirts and holding boxes of Christmas items until they return to the attic. And on the bookshelves and in the locker remain pieces of Malcolm’s life that don’t fit anymore but we can’t part with. And that’s just how it is.



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repost: Prayer with the Cosmic Christ

I wanted to share another prayer which helps me connect with the message I get in Exodus 3, reminding me of God’s lovingkindness by which I am seen, known, and understood in all pain, heartac…

Source: repost: Prayer with the Cosmic Christ

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Happy Thanksgiving

The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves.


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Definition of God

(Jean Houston) – It varies from day to day. When I was a little girl, it was a very personal person. As I got older, it became the universe — the universe in us. But mostly I think it is the wonderful words from Dante: “The love that moves the sun and all the stars, and moves in my heart and in yours.”

Author: Jean Houston Contributor: innergreatplainsInterfaithSourcePermalink

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