The Need to Contemplate

If you know me well, you probably know that I am often “in my head.”

I have a tendency to leave the moment and arrive in the midst of a whirlwind of worries, self criticisms, and “to do” items. I fall victim to this most often when I am alone, for it is then that I am most likely to abandon the present, lacking the energy that fuels me during human interaction. As a result, I often forgo alone time, and I often avoid silence.

This works for me… until it doesn’t.

It seems to me that every time I consistently refuse to take the time to process and reflect on the details of my life and its meaning, I eventually feel restless. Like the character “Miss Clavel” in the book Madeline, I am alerted by the sensation that “something is not right.” As I have written many times before, for me, writing is the medium for the reflection. It is as if my thoughts cannot exist in their truest form until they are expressed with language.

Fr. Richard Rohr (here I go again quoting this radical Franciscan priest) coined the term “contemplative consciousness,” which he defines as “panoramic, receptive awareness whereby you take in all that the situation, the moment, the event offers, without judging, eliminating, or labeling anything up or down, good or bad…a pure and positive gaze, unattached to outcome or critique.”

Fr. Rohr goes on to note that this act does not come naturally to most of us, at least in our current world: “You have to work at it and develop practices whereby you can recognize your compulsive and repetitive patterns and allow yourself to be freed from them.”

If I agree with all of this, if I have experienced the power of contemplation myself, why then, do I procrastinate my personal version of this act: transcribing my spiritual reflections?

It in infrequent that a verse from the New Testament comes to mind, but in this case, I think of Paul’s writings to the Romans (7:15-20).

15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

As humble and honest it was of Paul to share such a thought with people who followed him, his experience with falling back on old habits is not unique; it is human.

And so I, like Paul, fall back on my old habits of ignoring the restlessness that begins to creep in when I don’t take the time to contemplate. I make excuses. I am too busy, I don’t want to take time apart from my husband, I don’t want to be alone, I don’t want to write if no one is reading it.

Fr. Rohr believes that it is in “Moments of great love and great suffering” that we naturally arrive at true contemplation. For me, this has been very true, evidenced by the fact that the book I published was a product of my year of cancer treatment and by my tendency to write about meaningful interactions with others.

So while it is certainly annoying and unconventional to take time out of my day to type out my elaborate thoughts and quote various spiritual gurus to an audience that may or may not be interested in reading them, I know that it is important. I know that the restlessness I feel when I do not make time to write there for a reason.

And so once again, I will try to cultivate the habit of contemplation. Join me if you wish.

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Food for Thought

I decided to turn on a podcast while I was driving into work today. Seeking for a spiritual connection or reminder of what is important in my new, busy world of being a resident physician, I chose a homily by Richard Rohr.

I have heard many people’s mixed reactions to Fr. Rohr. He is a Franciscan priest and published author who resides in the desert of Arizona and frequently travels to preach. Despite the controversial reactions of fellow Catholics and protestants alike, I am a big fan.

I first discovered the teachings of Fr. Rohr when I was experiencing one of my bouts of anxiety over body image during college. I left the Rhodes campus to meet with a psychologist in East Memphis and decided to visit the Barnes and Noble before heading back to school.

It was hard for me during those days– to be honest, sometimes these days too, so not as often–to struggle with “worldly” and simple problems after being transformed by my experience with childhood cancer. My time as a cancer patient and friend to many other patients changed my worldview and my faith. In many ways it changed my identity. Why, then, after going to hell and back, could feeling unhappy about appearance make me feel so horrible? How could I be so simple-minded, so fickle, so faltering in my strength? This dilemma has made me angry at myself again and again. I felt that God must be angry at me, too, for failing to truly change as a person from my near meeting with Death. And in my anger, as is always the case with anger, I slowly withdrew my heart from God’s hold.

Then I picked up a book by Fr. Rohr. Simplicity, the art of joyful living was the title. My memory is not good enough to recall exactly what words touched my heart that day. I just remember feeling calm and understood, feeling loved and forgiven. I remember feeling enough, despite my brokenness.

This book sparked my interest in the Franciscan Catholics and in St. Frances of Assisi. It is not merely coincidence that the hospital where I attended medical school was founded by a group of Franciscan nuns in the early 1800s.

While I was living in Rochester, Minnesota, my emotional/psychological struggles ebbed and flowed. During my third year of medical school, I met Kristin.

Kristin is the only psychologist (now friend) that has helped me to reach the root of my issues. After our first meeting, she asked me to write her an email explaining to her what I stood for a person, a statement of my personal morals and values. No one had ever asked me to do such a thing. We found that the statement I wrote had an obvious theme; my life has an obvious them: love. I believe that love is the most important thing in the universe.

I believe that God is love and that the message of Christ was one of God’s love for us and the importance of our love for one another. I believe that love is healing. I believe that love helped heal me when I had cancer. I feel fulfilled by giving and receiving love. I feel that each and every human that I pass is an opportunity to meet another piece of God. I believe that death will lead us to a state of oneness with all the other souls that have lived and will live, and that this state is with God. I believe my life purpose is to share God’s love and inclusivity as a physician. I am called to love and be loved. I value family, friends, and loved ones above all else in life.

Yet, somehow, despite my focus of and obsession with love, my Achilles heel is my difficulty loving and accepting and forgiving myself. And in my life, this issue has manifested most obviously as an acceptance of my body, an inability to move past my physical imperfections. I have (at other times in the past) been anorexic, bulimic, and everything in between. I have purchased and thrown away at least a dozen scales. I have punished myself by under eating, over eating, never eating, and always eating. After getting therapy and stopping unhealthy habits, I have continued to punish myself by overvaluing my weight and by sometimes refusing myself satisfaction with my life when I am not my preferred weight.

In response to all of this, I have a tendency to respond to all of my feelings and thoughts about my weight with anger– anger at myself for stooping so low, for being so superficial and animalistic. This has been my downfall. This has been that which has separated me from God. This has been my sin.

Kristin taught me to respond differently. She taught me to respond with love, to take my biggest value in life and actually live it out when it comes to myself. She taught me to see myself as worthy of my own love because I am also worthy of God’s love. She taught me to be gentle with myself, even when I am being superficial.

All of these events and realizations came back to me as I listened to a homily on my drive.

Fr. Rohr speaks about the grand realization that we are not separate from God. Christ was both fully God and fully human, proving to us that humanity is divine. Everyone is worthy. Everyone is saved. Everyone is enough. Most of us are unable to surrender or self hatred and accept this salvation until we are faced with death. But we are given the opportunity to do so now, every day, again and again. God’s love is ours for the taking. We just have trouble reaching out and accepting it because we do not believe we could be worthy.

What would my life look like if I treated myself as if I were worthy of God’s love, as if God’s love was embracing me at all times?

What would your life look like if you did the same?

 

 

Blinding Lights

Today, according to the Church calendar, is the feast day of the conversion of Paul.

Formerly named Saul, he worked for the government in a position where he punished people, especially Christians. He was one day on a journey at work and was blinded by a strong light.

 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9)

As I listened to this story this morning, I was struck by just how terrifying this must have been for Saul. The story is much less glamorous than I’ve always imagined it. Saul was blind for 3 days and was so upset that he could not eat or drink. That sounds like an awful neurological disease rather than divine intervention. What astounds me most is that Saul did not respond by asking God “Why me?” or “Why would you do this to me?” or even “Why, God?”. He simply set out to help others come to know this God.

I think back to my experience with cancer. I asked “Why me” and “Why, God” so much that I wrote a book about it. I did not trust what was happening to me. It took me a while to find meaning in it, to find God’s place in it.

Perhaps miracles, perhaps encounters with God, are often like this. Maybe it takes something blinding to make us notice that Christ has been there, all along, waiting for us. If we believed this, wouldn’t we respond differently to whatever life throws at us?

My life is so full of love and excitement right now. It makes it easy for me to notice God in so many places. But I hope that when another hurdle presents itself, as it inevitably will, I view it as a blinding light and not a reason to question God’s grace.

A New Year (Again)

I have moments when I realize that I have missing the point again. Life is racing by, and I am missing opportunities to love people that are right in front of me because my focus is elsewhere.

I suspect that most people have these moments but that not everyone is willing to commit their thoughts or emotions long enough to end up writing them down.

Most recently, I read a letter (see here) written by a 27-year-old who was dying from the same disease that attacked my body nearly 7 years ago (has it really been that long?). She writes about how much we take for granted and about how well she lived her final days with her loved ones.

I echo her words, and yet I also struggle to take my own advice. It is not possible for me to live every moment as if it were my last.

Time and time again, I find myself being drawn away from the moment and pulled into an unhealthy or unfulfilling obsession. Time and time again, I find myself praying less instead of more, thinking of my own problems instead of helping others’ with theirs, and prioritizing my oh-so-important diet and beach body above self love.

But I guess this is what it is to be a healthy human who is not dying. This is how it is to get distracted by things that are of mere worldly value and momentarily become numb to the miracles of God that swirl around us like snowflakes in a flurry.

And in spite of this massive failure, again and again, there is a new day. Again and again, there is forgiveness and warm welcomes from a God that gives and embodies and becomes love.

So here’s to a new year of trying again to stay focused on what is important in life, even if I never get the beach body I want. Because the love that surrounds me is so beautiful and amazing that I don’t want to miss a second of it.

To all of you that supply that love- I hope you know how much you mean to me. Happy new year!

 

 

 

 

That for which we thirst

13 For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you.

17 “The poor and needy search for water,
    but there is none;
    their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
    I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
    and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
    and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
    the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
    the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
    may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

 

This passage could be interpreted as God giving people what we need, as God rescuing us from earthly problems like drought.

I see it as meaning something different, though. I don’t believe that God intervenes in such simple and superficial ways, at least not most of the time. I don’t think God typically stops hurricanes (or creates them) or cures people from cancer (or gives it to them). I do not believe that God miraculously gives water to those stranded in the desert in this passage or in our world today. 

I do believe, however, that this passage means that God is unconditionally present within our hearts and in the hearts of all those around us (this is partly what the Trinity means to me).

As animals, we have needs to survive like hunger and thirst. But as humans, made in the image of God, these things are not enough for us. We need more. We thirst for love. We thirst for God. We crave spiritual unity with our creator. And if we cannot admit this or do not understand it as such, we search for something else to quench our “thirst.” Drugs, alcohol, sex, overeating, dieting, accumulating nice things, gaining power in our careers, self-serving relationships… aren’t these all just attempts to quench our thirst for what we really long for?

It is disappointing that the Christmas season is all about giving our loved ones more belongings that they do not need. What if we focused on quenching our thirst with God instead, through acts of service in our communities? What if we focused on spending our free time in prayer both together with loved ones and alone in the company of God?

When we stop expecting God to put streams in the desert and miraculously heal people with terminal cancers, maybe we will notice that He has already come into the world and quenched our every sinful thirst with grace and selfless love. Even after such a feat, He remains present, pouring love into the universe, giving and forgiving no matter how many times we forget to do the same.

What more is there to want for Christmas? 

So Many Blessings

What if you truly believed everything good in your life was not something you deserved but something that you were gifted? I recently read the manuscript of a 90-year-old sociology professor who has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation for stage IV lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic. He, too, is publishing the thoughts that his experience has triggered him to explore. He articulated a similar question: “When bad things happen to us, who are we to ask ‘Why me?’ rather than ‘why not me’?” In other words, why do we assume we are undeserving of anything bad; who are we to think we are the exception rather than the rule? Who are we to believe we deserve better than what all humans have endured throughout time– suffering? Who are we that we would be above suffering?

Each moment that we spend experiencing joy or hope or love is a moment to be grateful for, a moment that defies the odds and overcomes the opposing forces of the universe. Every person, every memory, every belonging extra-ordinary. The illness and misfortune and fear and anxiety and suffering are products of the fallen world. And every departure from this fall is proof of the resurrection, proof that even the darkness of death can be conquered by light.

I am not always able to maintain such an attitude. It is so easy to become entitled, to expect goodness and be surprised when our experiences fall short of perfection. But when I am able to see every ounce of goodness as a gift that I did not earn (which is what life is, really), then it is evermore abundant.

 

Shifting the Focus

There are times when I feel inspired at mass, and there are other times when I try my best to stay present in mind and spirit as I struggle to keep my mind from wandering everywhere but towards God.

Today I felt inspired.

Prior to entering the church, I turned to my husband and voiced one of the doubts that sometimes flickers into my conscience, especially lately. “What if the historical Jesus did not want to be worshiped and was not actually one with God? Maybe He was just a really special prophet.” 

We walked into mass, and I learned that today was not only the last day of ordinary time but also the feast of “Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” I looked at my husband with wide eyes. as if to say, “I guess I got my answer, at least from the perspective of the Church.”

The Gospel was from the book of Matthew (25:31-46):

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

The priest talked about the connection between worshiping/loving Jesus as King of the Universe and acting out His will as a result of that relationship. If we truly worship and adore Jesus, then it follows that we will act out his teachings.

I was struck by guilt, by my lack of focus. So many times in the last year I have prayed for God to help me. I have prayed for freedom from my eating disorder and convoluted body image, for the intellect and willpower to excel in medical school, for the compassion to be a good wife and friend to so many. I have prayed for my continued health. I have prayed that I will not have more anxiety and panic. I have worked hard to stay fit and social and involved and up to date on literature and connected to family in the midst of medical school. I have been busting my tail to be enough for myself.

But what have I done for others? What have I done for Jesus? My king of the universe has been my ego. I have been striving to please the insecure little girl inside of me rather than the Christ who allows love to conquer all.

When have I considered the poor? When have I tried to befriend the lonely? Besides as part of my career training, when have I sacrificed my own pleasure to give comfort to another person?

Today I adjust my priorities to honor the King of the Universe, for this is a King that is in the sick and the poor and weak and not in the elite, the beautiful, or the successful.

I pray that you will do the same.