Today’s Word: Gasp

Springfield (Mo) Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

“You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.” – St. Augustine, Confessions

I am up early this morning sitting on the back porch because, well, I can. Yesterday the St. Louis area was hit with a record 108 degrees, and the ever-present St. Louis humidity made it feel somewhere up around 113. Not fit for man or beast. It was hard to catch my breath and find good oxygen. Perhaps I need to evolve some gills to better snatch the oxygen out of the air. Yet I know this will pass, as this morning it already has…for a while at least.

Heatwaves, snowstorms and other extremes of nature have a way of getting our attention. They smack us across the face and remind us of the power, majesty and unpredictability of the earth. They recall for us of the continuing cycles of nature, of the gentle spinning and revolving of the earth around its axis and around the sun, taking us into and out of our days, nights, seasons and years. If we think we’re in control, we need to stop and think again. We’re along for the ride.

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Today’s Word: Turns

Garden Path near Santa Fe. SJG photo.

There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.” Mark Nepo

I was talking to a friend recently who is trying to make a big life decision – one of those seemingly huge choices that appear to be riddled with opportunities for both success and failure. In the words of those sage rock ‘n’ roll philosophers from The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”

He is going about the discernment process in all the right ways, I believe. He’s talking to trusted friends and advisors. He’s doing his homework on the new place. He’s considering what he will be leaving behind. He’s praying and trying to leave it all in the hands of God, who knows him better than he knows himself. Still, it’s a tough decision. He’s not hearing any voices. He’s not receiving any divine telegraphs. As it so often happens in life, we have to make these decisions for ourselves, hoping and praying that it’s the right one. It can be a scary and confusing time.

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Today’s Word: Discovery

1903 Wright Brothers Flyer, Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. SJG photo.

“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

This past weekend, Sue and I visited Washington, D.C., taking in some of the sights and museums. I usually enjoy just about any kind of museum, but I am often drawn to history and science museums because they present the discoveries and innovations of the world in such a graphic and accessible way. And whether some man or woman of the past conquered flight or disease, whether he or she discovered a new way of seeing the world, governing its people, harnessing the power of its natural resources or uncovering its ancient past to better understand our present, a museum gives us in a snapshot what a good book does in more depth over hundreds of pages. Both are important, of course, but a museum has the opportunity to grab our attention and nudge us toward the deeper end of knowledge. What we see in an exhibit can and should lead us to read, to research, to create, to think deeply and share with others.

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Today’s Word: Silence

Growth happens in silence. George Washington's apples, Mt. Vernon. SJG photo.

This morning, we are sharing our outdoor space with a doe, who has been feeding herself on our friend and neighbor Gerry’s decorative grass and lying quietly in the shade of two small maples, paying little attention to the two humans behind the screen. Together, we seem to all be enjoying the silence of the early Saturday morning before the rest of the world wakes up and begins mowing lawns and puttering around doing the things we humans do.

It’s not really silent, of course. The birds are a noisy lot, and then there’s the distant traffic. Not much we can do about that. But relatively speaking, it’s pretty quiet. Silence, we sometimes think or come to believe, is a “nothingness.” It is the absence of noise. It is the hushing of talk. It is the musical void and even the quieting of our inner voices. And so it is. But it is so much more.

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Today’s Word: Tempo

Slowing down enough to see this. SJG photo.

On this lazy Sunday morning, Sue and I are sitting on the porch doing “nothing,” although that’s never really true, is it? We are reading and writing. We are listening to the birds and staring at the stems of all our flowers that have been eaten by the deer and the rabbits (argh!) We are enjoying a cup of coffee and some fresh fruit. We are being present to one another even when we don’t speak. We are praying and being present to God. Is all that nothing or something? I think it’s something important.

So caught up in the business and busy-ness of our work and lives, we can all sometimes feel guilty about doing “nothing.” But, of course, it is exactly this nothingness that we need. We need time to unplug, time to refuel, time to remove ourselves from the rest of life so that we can be, in fact, better for the rest of life, better for those who need us, better for the work that needs to be done.

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We’ve Seen It All, or So We Think

Praying the Examen and Leaning into Gratitude

Seeing Ourselves in Our Days. SJG photo.

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Here in America’s Midwest, we are entering a new spring, although the mornings and evenings usually still have the remnants of winter in their cool breezes. Although we have just experienced an exceedingly mild winter, my practice of walking for physical and spiritual benefit has been lax and sporadic, and I am eager to pick it up again, if for no other reason than for the opportunity of putting myself in a better position to be astonished by unexpected glimpses of beauty in the world on a more regular basis. But the high level of pollens in the air and covering every outdoor surface with a thin layer of green has been keeping me and my wheezing cough and watery eyes inside. Hopefully this will subside soon, and meanwhile I’m mostly watching the outside world from my window.

Not paying close attention to what’s going on around us, refusing to be aware of the blessings and presence of God in our everyday lives, and not being willing to “be astonished,” as the French author of Gigi notes above, could all very well be the direst temptations we face as we get older. After all, we’ve seen it all, we think. There’s nothing new under the sun, so why pay attention? Another day is just another day if we don’t watch for something that will make it different.

So we settle into life, yawning at the sunrise, blinking through beauty of garden and field, ho-humming our way through all that we have learned to take for the ordinary and deserved. A meal becomes mere sustenance. The family visit perfunctory. The work of art only decoration or mindless entertainment. Without attention, without presence and purpose (our own and our acknowledgement of God’s) we risk allowing life to sweep over our heads virtually unnoticed. We live without gratitude not because we don’t care to say thank you but because we’re unaware of the gifts we have received.

It’s for this reason that the ancient prayer of St. Ignatius, the “Examen,” has become an important part of my daily prayer practice. It’s a prayer that forces us to slow down and pay attention, a prayer that can only end with that most powerful of prayers: “Thank you.”

Normally prayed near the end of the day, the Examen is an invitation to look back over our day and discover where we may have encountered God. It is an examination of our consciousness; a little different than the examination of conscience that we do when thinking about our sins and failures. This is a chance to review our day and take notice of what has happened to us and our interactions with others. It is a chance, before the day slips away from, to recall (or perhaps to see for the first time) where we encountered God. For when we do not stop and do this, we miss the blessings. We operate on autopilot and we just don’t see. We just don’t know. But when we stop and pay attention, we can begin to live lives of gratitude. We can’t say “thank you” for something we don’t recognize as gift.

A Moment at the Close of Day. SJG photo.

In its simplest form (and there is really no reason for it to be any more complicated), the Examen includes these five steps, and it can be done in as little as five or ten minutes:

Become aware of God’s presence: Ask for God’s help in looking at your day with honesty. Become aware of God being aware of you. See your day as God sees it.

Review the day with gratitude: Notice your blessings. Notice your interactions and opportunities. Don’t forget the ordinary.

Pay attention to your emotions: Savor these moments. Pick one or two emotions that surface and pray from them. Positive or negative, both hold meaning.

Rejoice, praise, seek forgiveness: Rejoice in the times you were drawn closer to God. Ask forgiveness for the times you resisted God’s presence and action. Thank God for the awareness you received, for the awareness itself is a gift.

Look toward tomorrow: Ask God to be a part of your next day. Ask for the grace you need to be more aware. Be practical and specific.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner once said, “Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted – a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”

Making Sure of God

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

At St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo

“Pooh!” Piglet whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
- A.A. Milne

On a visit a few years ago to St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica for a mid-day Mass, I pushed open the massive doors, and the chilly fall wind behind me seemed to almost blow me inside. “Get in there right now,” I could almost hear God say in the gust.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit sanctuary, I saw a scattered body of twenty or thirty devout souls who had made their way here from their jobs, their classes, and their lives. I was not a regular like many of them no doubt were, but I did come here occasionally for holy days or, more to the point on this given day, when it seemed like I should. This particular day was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

I slid into a pew, removed my coat and tried to breathe normally. I closed my eyes, soaking in the quiet of the stone walls and the lingering aroma of spent incense. In some ways, I didn’t want to be there at all because, when it came right down to it, I was angry. I’m always angry when I try to figure out what happened to my father’s life. His was a life of promise, creativity, and healing cut short by alcohol, cigarettes, and depression. I wanted God’s undivided attention on this point. I wanted to scream and pound my fists on his chest like a bewildered child. That not really being an option, I instead lowered the kneeler and dropped to my knees.

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Finding God at the Center

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Centered and balanced on God, Missouri Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

During the period of remission between my first and second rounds of chemotherapy, I attended the funeral Mass for the brother of a friend from church. As the Mass ended, the musicians began playing a song I love and know well, and the chorus of the old Quaker hymn flowed over me like a cleansing, refreshing morning shower:

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

As a musician and a singer myself, I have always been drawn to this song for what I guess are obvious reasons. I have always felt a “call” to sing and make music, and this old song always resonated within me. There is nothing, I once thought, that would ever keep me from singing. But I found out over time that that wasn’t entirely true. As I experienced some of the tougher days of my disease and treatment, there were times when singing was the last thing I wanted to do. For me, this was one of the more difficult aspects of coping with my disease. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sing; it was that I just didn’t feel like it.

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Grappling with Life’s Numb Moments

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Hiding from the numbness: Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. SJG photo

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

Over the course of my treatment, my chemotherapy drugs have caused what is known as “peripheral neuropathy.” In short, my hands and feet are numb. My size-ten feet tingle when I walk, which sounds a little like a line from a Broadway musical, but it’s far less entertaining. When the neuropathy first kicked in, I kept dropping things (most memorably a full glass of milk all over the kitchen floor) because my sense of touch had changed with the deadening of the nerves in my hands. I learned to laugh while I cleaned up the messes, and my wife learned to never just hand me a drink without asking, “you got it?”

All in all, I guess it’s a pretty small price to pay for the unrelenting work these killer-chemicals are doing to beat the disease into remission, so I’m not really complaining. But nevertheless this numbness is a strange and constant reminder of the whole kit and caboodle—disease and treatment rolled into one unique experience.

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In Chemoworld

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Another world: Watkins Glen State Park, New York. SJG photo.

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. – Thomas Merton

The moment the elevator door opens on the seventh floor and I enter the treatment center, I feel as if I am in a different world from the one where I spend the rest of my days and nights. It’s different for a number of reasons: the place itself, my fellow travelers in treatment, and my own state of mind and spirit. Chemoworld, I call it.

The center, although part of a massive, modern and sprawling medical center in St. Louis’ urban and trendy central west end, is generally quiet, and the people around me seem (again, generally) pretty unaffected, at least for a time, by the world outside the walls of the center. The economy may be falling apart, political candidates and parties may be railing against each other, and war may be raging in far-flung regions of the world, but for a few hours none of that matters as much as the battle being fought between life and death in our own bodies. As killer chemicals are sent racing and screaming into our bodies like tiny Kamikaze pilots on a mission, we’re in a different world.

I realize that, so far at least, I have been luckier than many in that my treatments are relatively quick affairs. I’m usually in and out within an hour or two and, while the treatments themselves make me weak and achy for a few days, I’m well aware that many others are not as fortunate. All that could change for me tomorrow, of course. For now, though, I am blessed.

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