Every once in a rare while, we can have a particularly intense encounter with God. I would like to share an encounter I had with you.
I was at my favorite place to do a retreat, Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. I was sitting in the chapel in the evening. A few lamps cast a dim light in the space. I sat in a chair off to the side. I don’t even remember what led up to this moment: I believe I was praying with scripture. All of a sudden I had the sense of God as a burning flame. But I wasn’t separate from God. I could feel all the atoms that make up my body intermingling with the atoms of God in the flame. I was completely part of God, and yet I was still conscious of my own identity. I felt full of peace and joy. I could sense all the false thoughts and beliefs I carried just melting off me. I realized it didn’t matter what anyone thinks of me, how anyone might judge me. All that matters is union. Not only that, I also sensed that everyone and every part of creation is part of this union. Our separation is false. We are really all one in God and it will all be okay.
Now, of course, I couldn’t stay and live in that intensity for long. But whenever I recall the experience, I feel more free and hopeful and am reminded that there is a greater reality.
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
Consider these three roadblocks to discerning the call of God.
Is following the call of God your top priority in life? Are there other obstacles to discerning God’s call that you would like to add to this list? Write us a comment on your reflection.
If God is all-loving and all-powerful, how can God cause or allow such devastation and suffering as was perpetrated by Hurricane Irma this past week? Human tragedy can trigger serious doubts in the provident love of God or shatter belief in God altogether. How do we understand the mystery of God and suffering?
Theologians who are also scientists can help us wrestle with this question. They suggest that because the vast expanse of creation is loved by God, not only do human beings have a freedom appropriate to their nature, but all living creatures and processes also have a type of freedom as well. As human beings, we cherish our independence and freedom to make choices in life that will help us realize the fullness of our human potential. In giving us the gift of free will, God freely chooses to limit divine power and control in our lives. Never forcing us to act against our will, God makes us partners, not puppets, in the ongoing care of our world. This gift of human freedom, however, has a “shadow side,” making us vulnerable to the moral evils of violence, war, poverty, hateful prejudice, and oppression of every kind.
Like human free will, all living creatures and processes exercise a type of freedom according to their nature that generates the flourishing of life for the continuous development of the evolving cosmos. In the ongoing creation of the universe, God acts, but does not control; God guides, but respects creation’s autonomy. These free processes, however, also produce situations of “natural evil,” namely, the suffering caused by experiences and events of nature such as Hurricane Irma. While hurricanes produce rainfall that can end droughts, promote the dispersal and growth of plant species, and produce biodiversity, they also cause the destruction of human lives, vegetation, wildlife, and infrastructures. Our abuse of the planet is also increasing the intensity of these natural disasters. Unfortunately, suffering and death make up a necessary and purposeful part of the evolutionary process.
The crucified, self-giving love of Jesus Christ reveals a God who freely chooses to be vulnerable to suffering. The resurrection of Jesus shows that while God allows suffering and death, God will bring newness of life out of suffering and death for the transformation of the whole world.
Take time this week to ponder the mystery of God and suffering. Do moral evil or natural disasters trigger doubts in you about God’s unconditional love for all creation? If someone told you that all the pain and suffering in the world caused them to doubt the existence of God, how would you respond to them?
Would you agree with the following statement: the only person in the world who has the power to insult you is you and no one else? When another person levels harsh criticism at you, certain negative thoughts begin to flood your consciousness. Perhaps you exaggerate the importance of what is being said or jump to the conclusion that the criticism is valid and accurate. You may see this single negative event as part of a recurring pattern of defeat. “I always mess up! I’m a complete failure! I can never correct this mistake! Everybody hates me! This criticism shows that I am worthless!” Your emotional reaction will be produced by this bombardment of negative thoughts and not by what the other person says.
In his book Feeling Good, cognitive therapist David Burns gives some helpful advice. He suggests that one important way to conquer the fear of criticism involves your own thought processes: Learn to identify and analyze the negative and irrational thoughts you have in reaction to being criticized.* These distorted thoughts can create negative and hurtful emotions. Upon reflection determine whether the criticism is right or wrong. If it is wrong, then there is no reason to feel upset. It was the other person’s mistake to criticize you unfairly. With a spirit of compassion, let it go. No one is perfect. On the other hand, if the criticism is right, still there is no reason for alarm. Humbly acknowledge the mistake and do what you need to do to make amends. With a spirit of self-compassion, gently forgive yourself recognizing that you do not need to be perfect. If you have healthy self-esteem, it is easier to hear and to respond to criticism. You do not require the approval of others to be full of love and at peace.
Take time to reflect on how you handle criticism from others. Do you fear criticism? Do you recognize how your own distorted thinking can create negative and hurtful feelings? Can you grow and learn from criticism in becoming your authentic self?
*See David D. Burn, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, (New York: HarperCollins), 131-148.
I was involved in jail ministry a number of years ago. I loved meeting one-on-one with the women as they shared their struggles and their faith. So many wanted to pray together at the end of our time; it was very moving. One thing that struck me was that those who were arrested for forging checks would say, “Well, at least I didn’t sell my body.” And those who were in for prostitution would say, “Well at least I didn’t steal by forging checks.” Sometimes people feel a need to see themselves as “better than.” This tendency to want to see ourselves as superior affects all of us at some time.
Religious life is varied and holds many different and good responses as to how to live one’s vowed life well. Still, sometimes this tendency toward a sense of superiority can sneak in. A congregation may imply that theirs is the only valid way to love and serve God. If you are discerning and a group tells you why they are better than everyone else, that might be a sign to go a little deeper and see if they have true Christian humility and compassion.
Sadly, I recently had this experience at an out-of-town parish I attended with my Mother. Though the readings were based on God’s welcoming of all, the priest spent the whole time condemning. My Mother said, “Everything he talked about was either bad, sinful or evil. Not one positive word in his entire homily.” This pastor conveyed that he felt superior to all the various groups he condemned, including those who care for creation. This superiority will close him off from both finding and sharing Christ in these situations.
The self-righteous of Jesus’ day criticized him for spending time with sinners. Shouldn’t he be with the “better” people? Jesus preferred the company of people who recognized their own weakness and need, and who were open to receiving his love and mercy.
Do I catch myself feeling superior to others sometimes? What calls me to a healthy humility?
I had the opportunity to go on an eight-day silent retreat this past week. Turning off all devices and unplugging really helps me to be with God and my inner self in a deeper way. There were over 40 other people on retreat, all of us held by the shared silence.
One evening, I came out of the chapel and sat in the lounge to watch the sunset, and the following words came to me:
I felt compelled to bow to the sunset
just as I bow to the tabernacle
watching the sun’s slow descent
the changes in the sky
yellows, pinks, blues
is mesmerizing and awe inspiring
a sign of your presence and fidelity
you who gave us a planet
on which we can know
that the sun will rise each day
what glory, what reassurance
You gift it to us anew each day
and each night
we can rejoice in the beauty of hiddenness
because we know new light will come
I bow to your sunset.
What calls out to you to bow in awe?
Sister Lorraine Réaume
By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
I’m inspired to write about my gift of faith and the grace accepted. Grace is offered many times a day and it’s up to me to accept the grace, to engage and act as a Christian according to my baptismal gift. I would like to identify two specific graces that are an integral part of my life. I received the grace of Baptism very early in my family life and it’s that grace that urged me to accept a second grace, later in my life, that of a call to be a member of religious life, a Dominican Sister. Of course, I ask “Why me? Why not another person, who am I that I have been graced twice with regard to my vocation?” At the time I wanted a family and I wanted to become a sports star (the sports star was a real overreach). Well in one way or another I have accomplished that and much more. As a mother I would have been a guide to my family. As a Sister, I became a guide to many families over my years as an RN and a Certified Nurse-midwife. God’s gifts are only limited by our imagination. I continue to minister even now as an RN in a parish with a commitment to the homeless and service to frail seniors. I’m still preaching with my hands both being ‘in-touch’ and ‘touched’ by the people of God.
What is the direction in your life and are you open to God’s Grace?
Every good life choice is grounded in self-esteem. With self-esteem, we reverence and respect our own person as a gift of God. We are not trying to look or be like someone else. This brings to mind the familiar story from the Talmud about Akiba.
When Akiba was on his deathbed, he complained bitterly to his rabbi that he felt like a complete failure. The rabbi moved closer and asked why, and Akiba confessed: “I have not lived a life like Moses.” He then broke down in tears, admitting that he feared God’s judgment.
At this, the rabbi leaned into his ear and whispered gently, “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
With self-esteem, we embrace our true self with unconditional love. In turn, we make decisions that bring about our own flourishing and the betterment of our world.
As you reflect on important choices in your life, will the decisions you make reflect a careful attention to what nurtures your authentic self and brings the fullness of life God so wants to give you?
Developing our relationship with God requires the skill of listening to God in all the ways that God is present to us: in the wonders of nature, in our daily human experience, in sacred scriptures and preeminently in Jesus Christ. In what has been called the “mysticism of ordinary life,” we learn to recognize and name the grace we experience day to day.
One of my favorite mediums for God’s life-giving presence is the beauty of nature. God has a way of luring me out of myself into the sensuous beauty of nature manifest in the exquisite scenery spanning from coast to coast. God is that dynamic, unitive and life-giving presence that permeates all creation and desires to draw us into communion with the divine. Thomas Merton writes of how he listens for God’s voice in the comforting speech the rain makes at night. He says,
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone,
in the forest, at night, cherished by this
wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech,
the most comforting speech in the world,
the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges,
and the talk of the watercourses
everywhere in the hollows!
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it.
It will talk as long as it wants, this rain.
As long as it talks I am going to listen.”*
The God of many names, speaks to us continuously in the elemental language of water, fire, wind, and earth. How do you experience the presence of God in ordinary life?
*Thomas MERTON, in Elizabeth ROBERTS—Elias AMIDON (eds.), Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 165.
A Sister friend of mine was nearing her final vows when she would make a permanent commitment of her life to God. She recounted how she happened to be taking a bus ride one beautiful day. She was enjoying the sights when on the bus came a young woman her age who was pregnant. She said, “The woman sat down on the seat opposite me; we could see each other face to face. The woman began to embrace her womb, her pregnant self. I felt my hand go to my womb. At that moment I gave to God the sacrifice of never having my own child. I heard God saying to me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ It was a beautiful moment.”
While the vow of consecrated celibacy deprives us of the experience of giving birth and raising our own family*, the experience of giving and sustaining life can take many forms. Our capacity to give life also includes our multifaceted creativity, inventiveness, playfulness, and our ability to bring life into human relationships through good communication skills, appropriate sharing of feelings, being a good listener, being sensitive to the needs and concerns of other, and reverencing the dignity of people. It includes the willingness and ability to deal with conflict as well as the skills to make peace and work through difficulties inevitable in human relationships. Generativity also includes joining in the building of resilient communities where economic, political, and social justice is upheld for everyone, especially people who are poor and most vulnerable. In the broadest sense, being a generative person means being someone whose spirit-filled and loving presence facilitates the growth and flourishing of others and all creation. Giving life is a labor of love open to all people.
*Some women take the vow of consecrated celibacy after being widowed or after their marriage is annulled and their children are grown and living independently.
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!