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Music - Giving time to reflection and prayer might well be considered as music for our souls.
In the course of a day, we might hear a lot of musical sounds: everything from the ring-tone of a cellular device to ongoing background music at a workplace. And sometimes a song or a tune might spontaneously come to mind and remain with us for a while. But mere hearing is not the same as giving full attention to music and allowing it to move within our hearts as well as in our minds. Whether it is a very simple tune or that of a favored group or an orchestra, most of us only rarely fully engage with music.
Our internal dialog, and even our prayer, can parallel the way we often relate to music: with partial attention or little openness to the full experience that is available to us. We have responsibilities and quite legitimate interests that often prevent us from giving our complete focus to music that we would otherwise greatly enjoy. But we will make the time available when we consciously determine to make some time for hearing music with our whole selves being completely present: body, mind and spirit. In a similar way, if we consider the benefits we derive from taking time for allowing ourselves to observe the complementary interaction of our thoughts and feelings, and perhaps bringing those very personal internal movements to our relationship with God, we will do it.
If we reflect a bit on past experiences, most of us can easily recall having talked ourselves out of doing something that we wanted to do because we thought that whatever we were engaged in at the time was of more importance than anything that our hearts might desire. Such reasoning follows the erroneous logic that whatever we do is always more important than who we are. When we take time to eat and to care for our bodies we become capable of accomplishing much. And when we regularly attend to our desires for reflection upon experience and for prayer, we maintain our sense of purpose in life and become more and more efficient and effective in our thinking and in our decision-making.
Background music is to some extent enjoyable, but we are much more satisfied when we let ourselves be filled with complete experiences of music. General awareness of our values and a vague sense of there being more to life than mere activity are of course valuable and helpful. But we deserve times of allowing for full experiences of reflection and prayer, not just for our own sakes, but for those with whose lives ours are in any way intertwined. Good music has effects upon us that transcend thinking alone. So too, the recognition and acceptance of our deeper desires and of the gentle but real inspirations we receive, transcend the physical realities of our lives.
Saints - Our saints are, like us, imperfect.
How many saints do we know? Not just the Saints who are popularly acclaimed as such by a large number of persons, and who are publicly given the title, but men, women and children who inspire or guide us to a sense of the transcendent because of who they are. Once we get beyond looking for qualities of sanctity or holiness that we might be able to cite, and quietly reflect on some or our experiences, we will much more likely recall characteristic personal encounters of habitual goodness in them which we do not need to define or put into words.
These saints with whom we are acquainted do not make the news, nor are they made known in other forms of entertainment media that focus only on surface appearances and other superficial aspects of people. Our saints somehow nudge, encourage and support us to take joy in whatever is good, true and beautiful. These people are wholly helpful to us, almost always without their consciously intending to affect us in this way.
Gratitude might come to mind as we recall some of those whose observations, remarks, or manner of being has inspired us or lightened our hearts. We might not be able to actually thank them, for any number of reasons, but we can still acknowledge the appreciative movement that takes place in our minds and hearts. Gratitude is an appropriate interior acknowledgement of the effects of our saints upon us, for we are not the cause of their gratuitous personal gifts to us.
Our saints are, like us, imperfect: not every word or deed of theirs gives us cause to designate them as especially spiritual or otherwise remarkable in their dealings with us. But, over time, and especially through a number of challenging circumstances, their consistent positive influences in our lives are easy to recall with thankfulness. They also make it easier for us to recognize the goodness that lies within us all, though it is hidden in many of us and is apparently almost repudiated as a possibility in others.
The saints we know do not necessarily say anything about God, but by the way they interact with us they certainly do not lead us away from any notions of transcendence in general, or of a personal and loving God. Rather, they engender trust in our personal experiences of insight, grace, illumination, and even hope. Like the scent of a freshly cut orange peel, we know the presence of goodness in persons when we encounter them. If we reflect a bit, we can readily identify the saints among us who reveal a bit of who God is, for God is all-good and the source of all goodness in, among and around us.
We could be a bit intimidated by reading the lives of Saints, as so many of them can seem so different from how we think of ourselves. Comparison is not very helpful, since each of us is a unique person, called to develop our own particular gifts. Our saints might personally and directly challenge us, but always in a way that invites and encourages us to become ourselves, not "like" them or anyone else.
Thank God for saints as well as for Saints.
Worthless? - Each of us is a unique creation of infinite value.
How interesting that “worthless” is in our vocabulary, with a strong negative meaning, but we do not have “worthmore” as a positive word. Of course we can resort to two words, “worth more,” but to say that someone is worthless is a complete dismissal, whereas if we say that a person is worth more, a comparison is required. How do we think of and describe ourselves and one another as having absolute worth, not by comparison with someone else and not according to an arbitrary standard of measure?
The words are not nearly as important as the reality: no human person is worthless, nor are any of us of more worth than anyone else. Our worth is both incomparable and immeasurable. But there might be days when we think that we or someone else is worthless. The antidote to such poisoned thinking is not a single word with opposite meaning, but rather an interior movement from surface to depth, from being in storm-tossed waves that blow any which way, to being in a peaceful but strong current purposefully flowing. We can gracefully focus our attention on a basic existential truth.
We do not confer self-worth upon ourselves as some kind of quality, compliment, or honor. Rather, our value is determined before we might ever acknowledge it. We determine, to a large extent, whether or to what degree, we will accept the truth of our innate value. Avoidance, comparison with others, and even denial are some of the causes of possible mental confusion and consequent emotional discord we can experience if we literally misjudge ourselves or others.
Just as we are free to believe that the earth is flat, or that no human ever set foot on the moon, we have the capability of accepting that we are personally chosen to be who we are, rather than being some kind of accidental occurrences on earth. We are able to choose others to become friends, teammates or to engage with us in some kind of project, but even parents do not have the capability of choosing a human person to be who that person is. God is actively, consciously, and with absolute love, choosing each of us to be, giving us our true worth. And yet, we are free to think of ourselves or others as worthless, even though each of us is a unique creation of infinite value.
While it might appear to be an exercise of pride to think of ourselves as being so highly valued, do we refuse to admit that anyone, including friends or family members, cares for us just as we are? When people do not accept love in any form, we understand that they have probably been deeply hurt, and so are incapable of believing that they are loved. We do not encourage or support that kind of thinking, recognizing that no one of us could possibly be unworthy of being loved. For ourselves, and all others, we might as well acknowledge what God does, loving us into being. To do so is not being falsely proud, but is accepting of a reality which we did not create.
No one is worthless to God, so who are we to judge otherwise?
Holy Water - Life-giving water, any way you choose to consider it, is holy.
Churches have Holy Water that has been blessed and used as a reminder of Baptism. And some people keep a small amount for private use at home. All of us, if we take a little time to reflect on the importance of water, might be willing to believe that most water, and especially the water we drink, is holy. It is not just a sign of the presence of God, but an active loving presence of God’s very self.
Any reflection that leads to gratitude is worth the little time and thought we give to it. Taking a drink of water is generally good for us; when we are grateful for the positive effects upon us that water brings about, our bodies benefit and our spirits as well. We know the difference between unconsciously gulping down whatever water is at hand, and enjoying a refreshing drink of water. We can, if we wish, consider the Ignatian insight that God “works for us” even in water, and give a bit of our attention to how that affects our sense of gratitude.
Store shelves are filled with containers of water that come from springs or sources at a distance, even from other nations. But whatever water we happen to drink at any time, whether from the tap or from a bottle, has been brought to us, and was very likely tested to ensure that it was safe for us to drink. We might take clean water for granted, but gratitude for such a truly life-giving gift, is wholly appropriate. Water that is carefully provided for us is holy: God is “at work” not only through the cycle of rainfall and evaporation, but in human organizations that operate for the common good.
Not everyone involved in gathering the results of rainfall and making it available to us does so out of conscious love for humanity, much less intending to be of service to us as individuals. But we who appreciate our drink of water can be thankful that human societies can and often do fulfill their purposes of serving the welfare of all, not just a select few.
Water comes to us through the processes of ongoing creation on this earth, our home. Like God’s love for us, water is essential for all and given for all through the cycles it makes through earth and sky. Water is not manufactured; it is not itself a product, though it surely is transported, contained in dams and in small bottles, and forcibly separated from salt and other chemicals and contaminants. But fresh water means life for every one of us, and is very much a part of God’s holy creative care for us, and is certainly a legitimate cause for gratitude.
Water becomes consciously holy for us when we occasionally thank God for the amazing and gracious connection there is between life and water. We often think of “spirit” as ethereal, and non-physical. Water is a clearly a physical reality, but there is no accident in water being used for Baptism.
Life-giving water, any way you choose to consider it, is holy.
Fire - The Spirit is the force that radically changes us
Not many of us make use of fire for household purposes of cooking and heating, or for burning of trash. We are increasingly aware of mandated prevention measures for homes, businesses and all public buildings, and of the huge losses that can occur from fires in structures and from fires in brushy areas and in forests. An occasional practical experience of fire, even a small one, is enough to keep us aware of fire’s power.
Perhaps the positive metaphors of fire, especially those that relate to love and Spirit, might not seem relevant in our times when, for the most part, fire is seen primarily as a threat to life and property. But if fire is not presently a part of our normal involvements, some particular aspects of fire still provide powerful images that enable us to appreciate spiritual realities for what they are and what they mean to us.
We are familiar with romantic images of love represented by stylized hearts, and words about being on fire with love. But real love, which is a committed, ongoing choice to give what one has and is on behalf of someone in particular or for one’s calling in life, is aptly described as being like a fire, not because of consuming heat and dramatic flames, but because it does not leave anything of one’s life untouched. A fire is not a little bit here and a brief moment there, but involves all of our significant choices. Like the burning bush that Moses saw, love is a fire that does not consume. Love is in some very real ways a mystery that cannot be explained, but can easily be observed. We know when we are loved; we know when we ourselves “do what is right” without counting the cost.
Real love comes from hearts that are on fire. We observe it more readily in others than in ourselves, because love looks primarily outward, not inward. We are not like forest rangers who are looking to control a dangerous phenomenon that will cause destruction, but we seek in our own ways, according to our gifts and graces, to bring about light in darkness, and sometimes warmth where there is chill. We very likely act this way without needing to think about it. This fire is the energy for putting our deepest desires into words, actions, prayer and every form of creativity.
The presence of the spirit of love, the Holy Spirit, is like fire because we cannot control when or where this love will affect us. We know the positive effects of the consoling spirit that lights up our hearts, but we do not know when or how we will receive our next experience of God’s love. The movements of the Spirit are not at all like the fires that professional crews try to suppress in order to preserve what is valuable. Rather the Spirit is the force that radically changes us for the better when we accept the movements of love that are granted to us.
This fire of love is present within and around us, quietly yet powerfully blazing.
Secrets - We usually know which persons we can entrust with our secrets.
Some people playfully say that a secret is something that you may only relate to one person at a time. Catholic priests have a serious commitment to never divulging to anyone whatever is heard in one-to-one sessions of Reconciliation. The difference between a secret and the “seal of Confession” is that the former is normally a piece of information that is shared between persons involving some kind of trusting bond between them, and the latter is a communication disclosed in the religious context of the Sacrament solely for the spiritual healing of the one who speaks. The one who listens for the purpose of healing another has no reason to remember or recall whatever was heard.
Priests are not the only ones who receive very personal and intensely private personal information from people who need to be heard and understood by another human being for the sake of their own peace of mind and spirit. Any one of us, whose only credentials are a basic orientation to be of help to others, might be asked to hear what someone has to say, with the implicit understanding that the knowledge received will not be shared with anyone else, and will not be used for personal gain or to cause harm. Such an exchange is sacred.
The legally mandated exceptions to keeping secrets are intended primarily for the protection of innocent people, and secondarily for the prosecution of those who have committed crimes. But the strongly worded and widely publicized exceptions to confidentiality are about very specific aspects of human behavior. The trust that is placed in one person by another who reveals what he or she considers to be secret, is quite often a spiritual interchange, the opening of a soul-wound that can be healed by compassionate hearing. At a more ordinary level of human interaction, one of us might go to another with a small cut or minor injury, asking for assistance. But trust is the foundation of both modes where one person helps another in a situation where an individual cannot simply take care of his or her own immediate needs.
We know how important trust is, by the great pain we experience when we or others find that what was shared in confidence has been passed on to another person. Because we know of instances when privately communicated information has been shared with those for whom it was not intended, we might think that no one ever keeps a secret. Or that, before saying anything, one person should require of another a guarantee of secrecy. But if we reflect upon our experience, we recognize that a far more spiritual bond of trust is proper when something is shared for the sake of healing interior wounds than would be required for the “secrets” that merely involve gossip or information that is of little consequence. We usually know which persons we can entrust with our needs to be heard, especially when we pause for a moment of trusting in God, who then enables us to choose suitable human listeners.
Some secrets involve a sacred trust.
Tired - Those who love us want to share with us the search for whatever gives us life.
We naturally grow tired over the course of a day or during any prolonged meeting or activity. But we mean something quite different from the physical consequences of our efforts if we say that we are tired of how we are being treated, or tired of dealing again and again with the same external or internal challenges. Becoming tired as we go about life is a sign of healthy living. But when we say that we are tired of something, we might be describing our feelings, and that we are somewhat dispirited and in a downward movement of thinking and feeling.
Saying that we are tired of something might be an unintended way of stating that we are not facing directly an issue that is having unpleasant effects upon us. It is easy to complain, but accomplishes nothing. A much more positive option is to name as clearly as possible whatever is causing us discomfort, and decide to take appropriate means for dealing with it. When we reflect a bit on whatever situation is a source of irritation, we can identify our particular need for healing and therefore move towards a satisfying resolution.
When we become tired, most of us take some rest, even if only when day is done and we go to sleep. Rest restores us, and we can go about the activities that will again cause us to tire. In an analogous way, when we become wearied of problems and challenges, we do well to rest, though not by sleeping. Rather, we rest from ongoing distasteful internal and external events and even some of our attitudes, by deliberately turning our thoughts to something for which we are grateful, or by taking a prayer-pause, or by talking with someone. In so doing, we stop the downward movement that will otherwise continue towards increased frustration and hopelessness.
The decision to do something about whatever bothers us is spiritual, holistic work: opening ourselves to whatever gives us life, even if we also suffer in the process. Trees always turn their branches and leaves to the light which is the source of their life and growth. We do not have to choose light over darkness, but our inner lives are continually affected by the direction our thoughts are taking us, and we can deliberately orient ourselves to whatever brings us life rather than permit ourselves to think dark, negative thoughts.
Each movement of gratitude is an opening towards light. Often, our feelings are immediately more positive and hopeful when we use our minds to search for realities that we can acknowledge as good for us and for others. Likewise, every time we pause to pray in the midst of our wearying thoughts about the challenges, pains and especially the supposition of further troubles we might have, the change of focus, however brief, lightens our burdens. While we could tell others of how tired we are of this or that kind of life-experience, we might improve our situation, and please those with whom we speak, if we would instead choose to talk about practical steps for achieving healing.
Those who love us do not want to simply hear that we are tired of something, but to share with us the search for whatever gives us life.
Too Much - Too much negative thinking is overcome by on good honest thought at a time.
Too much of a good thing is still too much. That might not be a classic saying, but we all know that there are limits to just about everything in life. We might want to except from this rule, faith, hope and love. But when we say and mean that we or anyone else has too much of anything, from material possessions to suffering or certain ideas, we are making a qualitative judgement about adverse effects, not a statement of quantitative measurement.
We are familiar with the saying about being overwhelmed. For boats, that means too much water coming in. For us, this means too much stimulation, too many challenges at one time or any combination of internal and external events that we do not see ourselves as capable of handling. Since our preference is not to sink, we have to do something more than merely tell ourselves or others that we are being overwhelmed by too much of whatever is causing us a problem. Help is only a thought away if we choose it.
We have options, even when we can feel ourselves to be sinking, and when we see that the waves appear to be getting higher. A dramatic rescue would be gratefully received, but at least one resource is immediately available within our own minds and hearts. Even before praying or asking someone for help, we can choose to think of something that is both true and positive. Nothing stops negative thoughts as well as one that is directly opposed. Even to think that there must be some way forward is better than to continue being focused on all that is not as we would wish.
A tiny bit of hope, in any form that makes sense to us, is an improvement over a pervasive series of thoughts that add to our sense of being victims of too much of this or of that. There is honest truth in the thought that we do not have to remain in a state of being overwhelmed. We might not be able to immediately empty our boat of excess water, but the positive feeling that accompanies a hopeful thought verifies its authenticity and supports further thoughts and appropriate actions.
We can ask for assistance, both of God and of others, without thereby failing in our responsibilities to live as free and responsible persons. This is especially true when our expectations are not primarily of being either taken completely out of our difficult circumstances or of turning over all initiative to someone else. One of the finest of human experiences is that of accepting from others their acceptance of both our real limitations and our determination to do what we can.
When we pray, acknowledging our feelings of being overwhelmed in the course of acting in accord with our calling, we are first loved for who we are – a great encouragement – and then given insights and inspirations as to a hopeful next step. When we ask others whom we trust for help, they too first care for who we are in our difficulties, and then might also be able to offer us some practical realistic assistance.
Too much negative thinking is overcome by one good honest thought at a time.
Gifted - We are indeed gifted and we can be grateful; the two go together.
Though there might not actually be a bumper sticker that proclaims “My child is a gifted student,” similar messages of pride about children seem to abound. For us who are no longer children, rare are those of us who would proclaim ourselves as being gifted. The very thought of any such self-proclamation in spoken word, much less in print, is quite discomfiting.
But from another perspective, we have not just a very slim possibility of being gifted, but a strong likelihood of having a personal set of gifts of far more worth than that of the most gifted young person’s mental or artistic abilities. Outstanding and measurable capabilities for learning and performing are of course admirable in those who are gifted with such qualities. But to an even greater extent, so are the immeasurable and often unseen and unremarked exercises of kindness, patience and a whole list of personal excellences that come from another kind of giftedness.
Properly understood, most if not all of us are gifted in terms of being equipped to live as loving persons. For we do not create goodness out of nothing, or excel at any human endeavor without first being given the capacities, inspirations, guidance, love, support and opportunities that have made possible all the ways we think and act that are beneficial to ourselves and to others. Rather than beginning with nothing, we have been gifted from before we ever began to act in ways that fulfill our purpose in life.
We certainly do not brag about the most important and truly spiritual aspect of our lives, our capacity for giving and receiving love. We could rightly tell others about very satisfying accomplishments of ours in some aspect of knowledge or activity, but we likely avoid saying anything about the inner qualities of our hearts that are expressed in great and small ways, and which result in the care we exercise on behalf of those we live among or encounter.
If we reflect a bit on how much we have been given by God and by all those who have in any way loved, supported, encouraged or appreciated us, we can acknowledge that we are highly gifted. This awareness leads not to pride, but to gratitude. We are accustomed to giving thanks to people who give us gifts. But we are also grateful for kindnesses, consideration, services and other ways that people relate with us, all of which can be considered gifts in that they ultimately arise from good will, a form of love. We are indeed gifted and we can be grateful; the two go together.
The benefit of considering ourselves as gifted in the sense of being the recipient of goodness in any and all forms is that it opens and expands our hearts to the love that is really present in our lives. Gratitude is a powerful, energizing force within, enabling us to think, act and live as people with a very satisfying purpose in life: love of God and one another.
Trust Exercises - Trust comes from our hearts not our minds.
Some of us might think or say that we have a hard time trusting. However difficult it might seem to be, we can decide to move forward with our desire to become more trusting wherever and whenever it is deserved or appropriate. If we want to increase our level of trust in ways that are honest and that match our intention, we can do so through the exercise of trusting. Just as we exercise a set of muscles so that we can improve, for example, our ability to pick up objects of some weight without injuring our backs, we can engage in trust exercises.
If we decide to strengthen our back muscles, we do not start by bending over and lifting the heaviest thing we possibly could. Whether on our own or under the guidance of a trainer, we would begin with repeated light-load movements that would cause growth in our lifting capacity over time. And so with our trust in God or anyone, especially where we sense a risk of being hurt, we will wisely experiment with whatever small-sized acts of trust seem good to us. There is no great threat of suffering rejection if we only greet someone, as compared with asking that person to hire us for a job or inviting him or her to accept a weighty responsibility on our behalf.
Trust cannot be quantified, as if we could compare such a spiritual reality with someone else’s. But we can choose to increasingly exercise our trust in a number of practical ways. In our relationship with God, as one example, there is really nothing to prevent us from at least tentatively raising as a subject of our personal silent dialog, any doubt, thought or feeling that happens to be of concern to us. We can test out a small issue and, if the results are satisfactory, move on to greater ones that confirm our experiences of being accepted as we are.
The most important part of any trust exercise is to pay close attention to the feelings that accompany whatever we propose. When our hearts resonate with being understood and accepted we can rely on that internal experience as being both real and true, and therefore disallow any thoughts that deny the validity of our experiences or otherwise cause dissonance.
When we notice that we are becoming hopeful we can be sure that our trust is growing, for hope and trust are closely related. Both spiritual movements arise in our hearts, not our minds. Hope is often recognized as a spontaneous movement from within that occurs while we are struggling with some concern or other. The consequence of noticing an upwelling of hopefulness is supportive of our continuing, rather than quitting, whatever action or pattern of thoughts we have been taking. Our trust grows concurrently in two ways: we trust our own feelings of hopefulness as a reliable indicator of our decisions, and we implicitly trust the God of goodness who gave us these gifts.
Exercises of trust are for all who want love to be the primary force in life, not fear.
Duty - Love chooses duties as an appropriate means for expressing in actions that which is in our hearts.
We might praise someone for fulfilling his or her duty, but the word is often associated with something much less popular: obligation. Of course people can be courageous and heroic in accomplishing whatever pertains to their duties. And we likely receive satisfaction in doing what we have agreed to do or have accepted as a responsibility. But we might not immediately think of joy as being associated with the accomplishment of a duty and we might not be inclined to see any form of obligation as an aspect of love.
Without altering the usual ways we think about duty, we might find it worthwhile to consider some of the benefits that we receive when acting as dutiful individuals and when we are recipients of the very many things that others do in fulfillment of their duties. An ideal society is built on love of our neighbors as ourselves. But a society in which the members generally perform their duties is closer to reality, and is certainly not contrary to love.
Though we might not enjoy doing something that we have accepted as a responsibility or as a command, we can still derive satisfaction from having accomplished both the task that was ours to complete and also the manner in which we acted in accord with our personal value system. We are able to acknowledge with honesty that we have done well, even if we found it challenging or an occasion of suffering. Acting dutifully is no small thing in a world where selfish behavior has become almost expected in our present society.
We appreciate it when others do what they are supposed to do because we know well that not everyone acts appropriately when they face challenges that might involve personal discomfort or some form of suffering. Whatever our own values, we have learned from experience that some people act as though they depend almost entirely on the approval of others, no matter how insincere the feedback they receive might be. Those we respect for following through with their duties very likely derive their main support from within themselves. A person who is duty-bound is not a slave of someone in authority, but rather an individual of integrity who takes on a responsibility as a free and fully human choice.
Some duties are surely less pleasing than others, but the measure of our dutiful behavior is not pleasure but joy. Whatever we do for love, no matter how menial or unacknowledged by others our deeds might be, they are always of value to us and to those whose lives we touch in any way. Love chooses duties as an appropriate means for expressing in actions that which is in our hearts. Joy is much deeper than the mere pleasurable sensations that we can cause on our own. The sincere joy that arises within us as a consequence of fulfilling our duties witnesses to the presence of love, not selfishness.
Performance of a duty is really an act of love.