Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Expressing Spirituality - Conversation 4 With Joan Chittister

This post is part of the "Lent 2015" series.

“Spirituality is expressed in everything we do.” - Anne E. Carr

“I believe that our lives are our spirituality, but I am not sure that behavior is its certain indicator. I do a great many things that “look” good….” - Joan Chittister

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead, also.” - James 2:26

It’s a tricky proposition, this quest to deepen one’s spirituality. I want to strengthen my faith - or maybe just better define it - and, in so doing, I realize I must also examine my behavior, because it’s through my words and actions that I interact with the world around me. 

But too often we become so focused on our behaviors, the “whats”, and we lose sight of the “whys” - our basic faith that motivates us to act in love in the first place.

Let’s face it: Fear of the unknown is a valid fear. And, none of us really knows what happens after we die. Oh, we have theories and myths and beliefs, but we don’t have proof.

And that’s scary.

But that’s also where faith comes in. You know, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see," (Hebrews 11:1) and all that business.

However, just like proclaiming you’re a believer in the spiritual connections of mankind without actually doing anything to help your fellow humans during their time of need is useless, performing a bunch of good deeds without genuine love and concern for those around you doesn’t necessarily get you brownie points in the afterlife, either.

So, how do we strike a balance? how do we make sure we are living an authentic spiritual life? How do we allow love to guide and dictate our actions as we journey through life? 


Seriously, how do YOU ensure your are not just acting out of habit or a sense of duty when you perform charitable deeds? How do you keep your love for others - and the world around you - sincere? Share your thoughts in the comments section below….

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Religion, Church, and Spirituality - Conversation 3 With Joan Chittister

“When the death of their master was clearly imminent, the disciples became totally bereft. ‘If you leave us, Master,’ they pleaded, ‘how will we know what to do?’ And the master replied, ‘I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. Perhaps when I’m gone you will see the moon.’” - Sufi Tale

“The meaning is clear: It is God that religion must be about, not itself. When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.” - Joan Chittister

Ahhhh, religion. Church. How did something that should unite people and provide spiritual guidance and refuge get so screwed up? Studies indicate that more and more people - both men and women - find themselves unable to identify with organized religion, and is it any wonder? Advances in technology make the world smaller, allowing access into other cultures that previous generations only learned about through brief references in the Encyclopedia Britannica or photo spreads in National Geographic. Today one merely needs to perform a Google search to learn about religious or cultural practices of practically every obscure and major culture on the planet.

Today’s world is acutely aware of the inequalities, persecution, and war brought on by differences in religious beliefs.

Is it any wonder that more and more people have difficulty identifying with the formal religious institutions that they believe contribute to the world’s unrest?

Perhaps it’s time for a religious reformation: A new approach to exploring the wonders of the Universe that incorporates the fusion of our knowledge of history and culture with personal insight about how humans should treat one another.

Perhaps it’s time to get back to the basic definition of God — “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:8

God gives us signs. He speaks to us through the words and deeds of others. Literature, good deeds, academia, Nature. Let’s utilize God’s resources and stretch ourselves to choose love over hate in an effort to better understand the world around us.

“I have decided to stick with love…. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do you identify with a particular church or religious organization? If so, which one. If not, why? How do you think we can help alleviate some of the world’s unrest? Whose responsibility is it to work toward world peace?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

God Is....Spiritual Conversations With Joan Chittister

*A few weeks ago I bought the book, 40 Soul-Stretching Conversations, by Sister Joan Chittister, with the intention of exploring my own ideas of what faith and spirituality mean to me at this point in my life. It is also my intent (well, providing that I like this year’s journey) to break out this book time and time again. The book is actually a small journal that provides daily quotes and then insight from Sr. Joan (because obviously we are on a first-name basis) before inviting readers to jot down their own thoughts and responses.

After some contemplation, I decided that what I would like to do - if you will allow me the indulgence - is to use this as my Lent Journal. 

Each day during Lent I will provide you with the quote, a snippet of Sr. Joan’s response, and then my own contemplation.

Here’s the caveat: your responses are not only welcome, they are essential in order to keep the conversation - and growth - moving forward. So, please feel free to add a comment at the end of each post, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter (you know how to find me). I look forward to seeking out more spiritual truths with you this Lenten season! *


“God is gracious and merciful… slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” - Exodus 34:6

“Who is this God, really? Who is this God whom we have fashioned out of the light of our needs and the hopes of our hearts?” - Sr. Joan Chittister

Three days into this and already I’m asking myself, good grief, what have I gotten myself into with this project?

Who am I to discuss who or what God is? I am no great theologian or learned academic. I’m certainly no student of the Bible. What, then, can I possibly bring to this conversation?

Sister Joan elaborates on mankind’s definitions of God by illustrating the various incarnations we assign to Him, according to our own needs and circumstances. When we are angry, our God is a vengeful God. When we find ourselves at the end of our rope, God is full of mercy and kindness. When we feel guilt-ridden by our own actions, God is forgiving.

Sister Joan’s observations are sobering. 

Does this mean that, much like XTC’s lead singer Andy Partridge proclaims in his song, Dear God, mankind created God for its own needs?

Or, is God all these things and so much more, as Sister Joan states in her closing statement, “Surely God is all this…. And more, the more we cannot in our smallness and our thirst even begin to imagine”?

Personally, I believe God IS all that we need Him to be, when we need Him. He visits us through friends, neighbors, and even strangers who share in our pain, our joy, our sorrow. Jesus himself admonished his followers to assist those identified as downtrodden, hopeless, or weak. When we reach out to our neighbors in such a manner we allow ourselves to be vessels through which God can help others. We realize that there will be times in our lives that we, too, will require the support of our fellow human beings in order to survive the sometimes harsh circumstances this life throws at us.

Yes, surely God is all this, and so much more than our limited minds can understand and imagine.


What do you think? Who or what is God to you?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Things of the Soul

"The things of the soul must always be considered as plentiful, spacious, and large." - Teresa of Avila

"But what are the things of the soul? Surely they are every breath we breathe, every word we hear, every thought we think." - Sr. Joan Chittister

If the "things of the soul" are to be plentiful, spacious, and large, then the things of each individual's soul must be those she holds closest to her heart. These are the things she devotes the majority of her thoughts and time to. Those things she allows to occupy her thoughts and time - the things she will set aside all others for in order to focus on the things she deems highest in priority.

Or, maybe that's not it. Maybe we mistakenly categorize the things that most closely surround us as the things of our soul when what we ought to do is expand our reach. Maybe, the "things of the soul" are love, compassion, forgiveness, connection, and communication. After all, these are the things that bind us to all other humans.

Maybe THESE are the things we should have in abundance, in order that we may keep working on our hearts, expanding our spiritual muscles to create even more room for the things of our souls.

What do you think? What are the things of your soul? What do you hold closest in your heart and deem most important in your life? What do you feel you need more abundantly in your life?

Lent 2015

Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart. It is a 
commitment to immersion in God, to the seeking that has 
no end. — Joan Chittister

Somewhere along the way I discovered that I am a life-long seeker. I have always been drawn to all things spiritual - both religious and supernatural. I spent the entire school year in fourth grade reading books about ghosts, superstitions, and haunted places (my favorite holiday is still Halloween. Probably because it signals the beginning of the Holiday Season. Or maybe because of the haunted houses. Either one works for me.) In high school I aspired to learn about biblical teachings and church traditions. In college I devoted a great deal of time learning about the history of Judaism and Christianity. (I also devoted a great deal of time to partying and having a good time. But that is another story for another time….)

I married into a Jewish family, although my husband was raised Catholic out of respect for his father’s family culture. Since my family is Catholic, this worked for me, and I returned to my own family’s Catholic roots in order to continue that culture with our own children (with a little Jewish history and tradition, along with some Jewish soul food, thrown in for good measure). 

And, while my children all attended Catholic schools at least through the fifth grade, I always emphasized that faith is a very individual experience and it is my opinion that religion is a cultural expression of that inner faith. Thus, each of my children is responsible for his or her own faith. I can’t enforce faith on them any more than someone else can enforce faith on me. It’s something we all need to figure out for ourselves, and that growth is constantly changing and evolving. 

Which, I believe, is what Lent is all about. 

A few weeks ago I bought the book, 40 Soul-Stretching Conversations, by Sister Joan Chittister, with the intention of exploring my own ideas of what faith and spirituality mean to me at this point in my life. It is also my intent (well, providing that I like this year’s journey) to break out this book time and time again. The book is actually a small journal that provides daily quotes and then insight from Sr. Joan (because obviously we are on a first-name basis) before inviting readers to jot down their own thoughts and responses.

After some contemplation, I decided that what I would like to do - if you will allow me the indulgence - is to use this as my Lent Journal. 

Each day during Lent I will provide you with the quote, a snippet of Sr. Joan’s response, and then my own contemplation.  


Here’s the caveat: your responses are not only welcome, they are essential in order to keep the conversation - and growth - moving forward. So, please feel free to add a comment at the end of each post, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter (you know how to find me). I look forward to seeking out more spiritual truths and personal growth with you this Lenten season!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dr. Spongebob

Billy’s journey from doctor’s office to ER to PICU frightened us, but it also confused us. At no point during those first hours did we contribute his symptoms to the Enterovirus D68. Nor did we believe paralysis was a concern. The ER doctor in Joplin suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome or Transverse Myelitis (both also very scary diagnoses), and my personal concern was the possibility of Billy developing respiratory weakness. 

Therefore it came as a bit of a shock when the MRI results showed inflammation from the base of Billy’s spinal cord to his brain stem. The neurology Fellow, Dr. Goeden, informed us that there was no way of knowing at that point whether there was permanent nerve damage since nerve damage and inflammation look virtually the same on an MRI. 

So, that was scary.

Fortunately, a couple of the doctors at Children's Mercy, KC, helped talk us down off the ledge and offered reassurances about the treatments they prescribed.

One of the first docs we encountered when Billy arrived at the PICU was neurologist, Dr. Brian Aalbers. Wearing the protective gowns and masks recommended by the CDC while treating potentially infectious patients made it difficult for us to differentiate between the various health care professionals who frequented Billy’s room. However, one doctor stood out to us by wearing a four-inch rubber Spongebob figurine attached to his stethoscope.

Naturally, we referred to him as, “Dr. Spongebob”.

After viewing the results from Billy’s initial MRI, Dr. Spongebob met with us to interpret the scan. He explained that the MRI showed inflammation in the same area of the spinal cord that the polio virus attacks - but he was hesitant to call it “polio” since the term conjures feelings of anxiety and fear in parents. Instead, he and the infectious diseases physician, Dr. Mary Ann Jackson, preferred the term, “polio-like” (not that THAT was any better), in an effort to help alleviate some of our fears. But, let’s face it, this was unchartered territory for all of us. So, instead of dwelling on the unknown variable of the situation I simply asked, “Well, if this WAS polio, what would you do? Surely in this day and age you would know how to treat a patient who walked through the door with polio, right?”

“Absolutely,” Dr. Spongebob answered. And then he proceeded to explain their plan of treatment, based on the hypothetical situation of a patient admitted for polio in the year 2014. It was a pretty aggressive treatment plan, but one we agreed with.

“Giddy-up,” we told them.

After meeting with Dr. Spongebob and Dr. Jackson, Charlie and I conferred with Dr. Thompson, the PICU physician. “If this was your son, what would you do?” we asked.

Without hesitation she answered, “I would push for plasmapheresis. In fact, that’s what I’m pushing for with Billy. The sooner the better.”

Plasmapheresis, while not necessarily a dangerous procedure, sounds scary. Especially to someone like me, who, even as I write this, blanches at the very discussion of anything involving blood, especially the washing of it. That just can’t be natural, right? 

Plasmapheresis is the process of removing ALL OF A PATIENT’S BLOOD, separating the plasma from the blood cells, and then replacing the wonky-acting antibodies in the plasma with albumin in an effort to get those antibodies to behave properly. While the procedure has been widely used in Europe and Japan, it has only recently gained wider use in the U.S., and has shown promise in treating those experiencing autoimmune disorders.

Billy was definitely a candidate for the procedure.

Dr. Thompson worked her magic and brought in Dr. Doug Myers, AKA “Dr. Vampire”, to explain plasmapheresis to us.  Somehow I managed not to faint during any part of the discussion. 

*This is important to note as I personally feel it is my one major contribution to the entire four month ordeal.* 

Over the next ten days Billy underwent plasmapheresis every other day, while also continuing to receive IV steroids. At the end of the ten day period, a follow-up MRI was ordered.
Those tubes are sucking out Billy's blood, people.

The repeat MRI was clear.

Doctors rejoiced. We rejoiced. All breathed a sigh of relief. Billy was moved to the inpatient rehabilitation floor and put to work.

It’s been a long road, with a long way remaining on this journey, but Billy is headed toward recovery.


And we continue to be thankful. Thankful for quick-thinking, rational physicians, thankful for healthcare professionals who offered us reassurances, and thankful for our friends who, at Billy’s initial onset of symptoms, set aside their own egos in favor of getting Billy the very best care possible. Their timely assessments helped make Billy’s situation much more manageable than it might otherwise have been.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Faith

Faith and spirituality undergo many different incarnations as one moves through life. 

My personal journey, like most other humans in this world, has taken me down paths and highways I never imagined. And, honestly, sometimes I don’t enjoy the scenery such locales provide.

So often I travel along those pothole-ridden roads and find myself face-to-face with ugly sentiments that I try so hard to eliminate from my psychological repertoire. Emotions like hatred, self-loathing, jealousy, anger, greed, fear, doubt, and apathy all creep into my mind, threatening to destroy my hard-earned peace of mind, self-assurance, and generally cheerful and optimistic outlook on life. I struggle with the concept of faith and re-visit my distrust of those professing immovable and steadfast belief and understanding in how they feel both the spiritual and physical world should operate. 

My inner cynic surfaces in full vengeance as I privately curse the last person who helped me find peace in my most recent spiritual turmoil, fooling me into believing that, at last, I have life’s mysteries all figured out. That cynic mocks my convictions and makes me question everything I’ve ever believed up until that moment. Indeed, all the previous moments in my life have led me to this precise moment in time when I begrudgingly realize that everything I’ve thought and learned thus far is, essentially, wrong. 

It breaks me. 

And then, out of nowhere, a statement is spoken or written or a cloud lifts and a sliver of light - just big enough to let me see some small detail I never noticed before - breaks through my darkened surroundings and I find solace and enlightenment. 

These are the moments when I most see God.

When I’m busy working my mind and trying to sort out what i’m supposed to be feeling, doing, saying, that is when I experience some sort of epiphany. Some sort of window into that other world where only our ethereal selves abide. There, my spirit convenes with other spirits. There, more of life’s great secrets are revealed to me. Well, not Life's great secrets, but My Life’s great secrets. There, I learn more of what it is I’m supposed to be accomplishing with my time as a physical being.

“God is a verb, not a noun,” I once heard a priest say.

I like this definition of a Higher Power. Instead of thinking of Providence as some sort of Being who will reveal him- or her- self to us in due time, perhaps it’s better to realize that the Divine is already there, waiting for us to understand what it is that our spiritual selves need to be doing, as opposed to simply being. The Divine happens whenever our souls connect with other souls. The connection doesn’t even have to be mutual, as all of us are on different journeys at any given moment in time. But we must act in order for it to happen. Every moment we spend recognizing our similarities with those around us, that is when we find God. Every thought or action that enables us to empathize with others, realizing that we are, every single one of us, members of the same family, homo sapiens - humans - God is there. 

God is in the action, the action that demonstrates love.

What do YOU need to do in order to experience the Divine in your life?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fear

Once, when my oldest child was a baby, I watched a show about missing children. Experts provided tips for protecting your child, such as not putting your child’s first name on his or her shirt, teaching your child about “stranger danger”, carrying a recent photo of your child to provide to the authorities - just in case - to name a few. After telling stories about well-known child abduction mysteries like the Adam Walsh kidnapping, the narrator went on to give statistics stating that the vast majority of child abductions are committed by family members, most specifically, estranged parents.

Still….

A week or two later I had a conversation with my brother-in-law about the show. I told him how scared I was for my daughter’s safety and how often my worry over all the bad things that could happen to her kept me up at night.

“You never know fear until you have a child,” Steve told me.

Well, crap.  He was right.

It’s a scary thing when your child gets sick. First you wonder whether you should call the pediatrician’s office or just run him over to the emergency room. Or maybe just a little ibuprofen will do the trick? If the fever or headache lasts more than twenty-four hours you find yourself googling his symptoms on the internet. Instead of finding the reassurance you need, you learn about the many different illnesses your child MAY be experiencing. 

Somehow you talk yourself down off the ledge long enough to gather the courage (and presence of mind) to finally call the doctor and find out if your child’s symptoms warrant a visit for a look-over. You drive yourself and your child - who may or may not still be exhibiting his symptoms by this time - over to the pediatrician’s office and wait your turn among two or three, or fifteen, other families who also finally bit the bullet and brought their sick kid in for that antibiotic prescription that will return him or her to good health in short order. And then you realize that even if your child was on the mend when he first entered the doctor’s office, chances are he picked up some new germ once he walked through those doors. All was not in vain, after all.

They finally call your child’s name and the two of you follow the nurse down the hall and into the private exam room, where you tell your story to the nurse, watch as she checks your child’s vitals, and then wait some more. The good doctor eventually stops by to have a look-see, and you discuss symptoms once again, expecting the typical head nod as you describe the illness’s course and await the inevitable prescription that you know will serve as your ticket back to a healthy household (and, hopefully, school). 

But things take a sudden and unexpected twist when the afore-mentioned fine doctor tells you to take your child for more tests. Or, you lose your ability to think clearly when he tells you to go ahead on over to the emergency room because he’s just not quite sure what’s going on with your kid.

That stuff will make you lose your appetite for a day or two. Or a couple of weeks, depending on how long you end up staying at the hospital.

As frightening as it is to watch your child lose his ability to stand, walk, or even roll over in bed on his own, you develop a sense of gratitude when you learn his illness is not life-threatening.

Because you realize that other parents are not so lucky. You watch them enter the elevator on the fourth floor - oncology. Their bloodshot eyes reveal their stress and sorrow as your hearts break for them over and over again. Instead of stepping over to them and wrapping them up in your arms, you stand in your little corner of the stark elevator reading - for the one thousandth time - the notice about the free flu shots being offered next week. And, again for the one thousandth time, you wonder how they will make it through the night, week, month, year. You hope and pray that they have the support group you have. And, every time, you offer a silent prayer that maybe, just maybe, a cure will come along and help increase their child’s odds of survival. 

Because, now that you’re a parent, you know and understand fear as you’ve never known or understood it before.