Monday, June 14, 2010

The Passionate Retiree

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted an entry on this blog! The last several months have been hectic, fulfilling, exhilarating, hopeful, exciting, stressful (not too much so, just an acceptable level of stress), revealing, and enlightening. I praise and thank God for all of the gifts that He’s showered upon me in the past year!

Where to begin? Unlike I did in my previous posts, I’m not inclined to recount in painstaking detail the minutia of my spiritual journey thus far. So perhaps I’ll simply state where I am right now: content with my life, pleased with the steps I’ve taken to live in God’s will, and looking forward to the new adventures God has in store for me. I am no longer desperate to find the ‘something more’ that God has prescribed for me; I believe that there are endless opportunities to do something more and then something greater still and perhaps something that I never even conceived of doing, all if I keep my mind and heart open to the Holy Spirit.

A huge goal of mine in 2009 was to discover my passion. Well, I have found not one passion, but many: writing professional resumes, designing and teaching fitness classes, joining in Christian fellowship with others to discuss the presence of God in our lives, and entering into a deep and profound relationship with the Lord by meditating on His word. Yes, I was heading down many of these paths as early as 2008, but now I view these activities not as justifications for my retirement decision, but as occasions to follow where the Lord has sent me, and make the most of the experiences! I’m also striving to use each of these pursuits as a way to focus on others instead of myself, to develop the Christ-like traits I’m meant to cultivate, and to continue to learn, grow, and challenge myself.

Is it a disappointment to me that I have not pinpointed one or more characteristics that I can definitively label as a charism? Not at all! I know that in many ways I am an effective teacher, writer, dancer, benefactor, organizer, confidant, leader, administrator, servant, helper, and prayer-giver. I also know that I have more than enough areas to improve upon to last me a couple of lifetimes! But I believe I can strengthen the gifts God has given me, and develop new talents by simply living every day in a way that I believe is pleasing to God. That is certainly enough of a challenge for me!

One change I am making is my decision to no longer post my reflections on the scriptures or on life in general on this blog. I believe that journaling is an excellent outlet for me to organize my thoughts, but I no longer feel the need to share them in this venue. I continue to pray for all who are searching for something more in the joyful hope that Christ will open their eyes and hearts to all of the prospects He has laid out before them. May the peace of Christ be with you all!

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Finding Myself

I recently edited my blogger profile to reflect some recent developments in my life. Though this is its third iteration, I still state that I retired in order to ‘find myself and discern God’s plan’. I’ve written a lot about discernment and my relationship with God, but I’m not sure that I’ve made much headway on finding myself. Then again, perhaps I was never really lost.

I think that I’m basically a pretty uncomplicated person. The things I like to do most are fairly mundane: read, write, cook, play games, spend time with family and friends. Most interesting are my recent ventures into dancing and fitness, which have been wonderful for my body, mind, and soul. And of course, the best thing I’ve done is to strengthen my relationship with God by praying with the scriptures and staying tuned in to His presence in my life.

But have I really discover anything new or startling about myself during the past 23 months of introspection? Perhaps not, but that might just be a testament to the fact that I really do know myself better than I thought. But for what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve discovered, or re-discovered, about the sweet and somewhat boring Michele S:

1) People generally seem to like me, and when I realized that, it came as a bit of a surprise. I’ve always been fascinated with people whom others find annoying, and I often try to analyze them. Do they know that most people don’t like them, or are they oblivious to that fact? Do they think that the problem lies with other people and not themselves? Do they catch themselves displaying the same old irritating habits over and over, and when they realize it after it’s too late, do they kick themselves for it (all too often, that’s what happens to me)? Because I’m so aware of my shortcomings, I’ve often wondered if I fall into the category of ‘jerks that most people don’t like.’ But since I’ve retired I’ve made a whole new sets of friends, and they often seek me out or tell me I’ve been missed when I’m not around, so maybe I’m not that annoying and unlikeable after all!

2) Even when I have loads of time, I’ll still find ways to procrastinate and waste time as a means of avoidance. Though I pride myself in never watching TV during the day (and rarely at night), I will play online games such as Word Twist, Scrabble, and (gasp!) Solitaire way too much! When I worked full time I used to justify these time wasters as a way to decompress after a stressful day, but even though my stress level has greatly decreased, there are still items on my To Do List that I just don’t want To Do! And I still find ways to put off doing them, or eventually transfer them to my Not To Do List if I can convince myself that’s acceptable.

3) I’m not nearly as creative as I thought I was. I do love to blog and journal, but I admit that my narratives just aren’t that riveting. My attempts at fiction writing, beading, photography, gardening, and needlecrafts are disappointing at best. Even the area where I think I’m most creative – cooking on a budget – has pretty much all been done before, judging from the cooking websites I frequent.

4) My self-image was much more wrapped up in my career than I thought it was. While I’ve had my share of tedious, disagreeable, and onerous jobs, my last position was actually quite satisfying. The downside – that I was pretty much on-call 24/7 and that I had too much responsibility – was also the thing that made it so rewarding: I was considered the system expert, the go-to person who had all of the answers. I just didn’t think I’d miss that sense of purpose and accomplishment as much as I do (though I certainly don’t miss the early morning or all-night phone calls when things went boom!)

5) On a related note, I find paid work much more rewarding than volunteer work, even if the pay is minimal. This distresses me a bit because I’ve never thought of myself as materialistic. But the fact that someone is willing to pay to take my fitness class or have me tweak their resume is a real bonus for me! It’s funny, but when I was working full time I said my ideal ‘fun retirement jobs’ would be to teach an aerobics class and to write resumes. How cool is it that I’m now doing both? I simply cannot believe my good fortune in this regard.

6) I really can change life-long habits! I am no longer a compulsive over-eater, and my weight has been in the normal range for several months. That’s quite a feat, considering I was overweight or obese for about 80% of my life. I think giving up nail-biting was even harder than giving cutting back on breads, pastas and sweets. Oh, I still backslide in both areas from time to time, but I am confident that I’ll not go back to my old nasty habits again.

7) I am now at peace in my relationship with God, and I can’t believe what a marvelous blessing this has been for me. I’d dabbled with spirituality in the past, but often let fear and doubt dissuade me from putting all of my faith in God. Now when weeds of disbelief start to spring up, I simply pull them up and throw them away! I’m not sure I always get the roots, but I’m not going to let them overtake my garden. No matter what else is going on for me, I know that the Lord loves me and is with me always, and this has become the greatest source of joy in my life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Purpose-Driven Retiree

Recently a friend gave me a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. I must say that I loved it, loved it, loved it! As suggested, I only read one chapter a day, just before I went to sleep, so I could let the concepts percolate in my mind throughout the next day.

The chapters definitely seemed to parallel the spiritual journey I’ve been traveling for the past two years. The first section, Planned for God’s Pleasure, notes that our first purpose is to bring God glory by getting to know Him and love Him. This was indeed the first ‘leg’ of my journey, taken up when I began praying with the Scriptures. Through my prayer life I have deepened my relationship with the Lord, and His word has brought me much closer to Him. Many of my scriptural reflections emphasize the joy of offering all we do for God’s glory and pleasure. This is something I always strive to do; it is also one of the major points made in section.

And so it went with the rest of the book. Section 2, Formed for God’s Family, reflects in my increased involvement with Christian groups such as St. Vincent de Paul, the Ignatian Praying with Scriptures group, my weekend retreat, and the newly formed Faith Sharing group at our church. The next section emphasizes becoming like Christ, another direction I’ve taken in recent months as a result of my meditations. Bringing glory to God by serving others is addressed in the Section 4; this was one of my earliest goals, one I’ve sought to fulfill by working with the indigent at The Helping Place and through St. Vincent de Paul. This section also describes using one’s talents and spiritual gifts to bring others to Christ, which I’ve attempted to do by discerning the charisms endowed upon me by the Holy Spirit. This is still an ongoing process for me, but one that is calm and unrushed, giving me a sense of discovery rather than one of desperation.

Warren defined our fifth purpose in life as taking up our mission, which is to bring Christ to others through evangelism. It’s interesting that the word ‘mission’ is one I’ve used many times on this blog, beginning with my very first post; however, I have never, ever used the term evangelism. In fact, it’s a term I never would have dreamed to associate with myself until very recently. Yet, my recent scripture meditations seem to be pointing in this direction, even before I got the last chapters of The Purpose Driven Life. On August 26, I posted my reflections on this topic on my blog Seek Ye First. I know that I have a long way to go in this department, but again, it is a way for me to grow and mature in my spiritual life. Indeed, it has given me a new sense of purpose, one that never occurred to me before. And so my journey continues, as I seek the confidence, courage and poise to share my faith openly with others.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mid-year Performance Review

In looking at my post from January, I see that I gave myself a score of 5.75 when I evaluated my performance on my 2008 New Year Resolutions. I am happy to report that in my mid-year review of my 2009 resolutions, I have a solid rating of 7.0! How’s that for moving in the right direction?

I do have two caveats in regards to my surprisingly high score. First, I drastically changed one of my resolutions early in the year, so my score was based on my modified goal, not the original one. Yes, I changed my mind about spending twenty minutes each day massaging my face as described in the book “Facelift at Your Fingertips”, and applying the weekly masks it recommended. I found the goal of slathering on sun screen in the morning and moisturizer in the evening, along with doing a few facial exercises I found on the web, to be much more manageable.

Second, my ratings focused more on my performance in the last few months rather than over the entire six month period. I think that’s pretty standard in the business world, so I decided to follow suit. It’s not like I made an extra effort to impress myself and get a more favorable review (that’s just a little too surreal, isn’t it?); I just seem to have more determination and will-power lately.

The area of greatest improvement was the one I failed at so miserably last year: refraining from nail-biting and skin-picking. Maybe the dentist’s warning that front teeth were starting to wear down gave me the extra motivation I needed. (He attributed this to my avoidance of chewing on my back teeth due to a gap in my bridgework, but I’m convinced that nail-biting is the real culprit). Now that I finally have healthy, attractive fingernails, I’m even more determined to keep them this way. But I do have this question: how do normal people trim down a nail that’s much longer than the others? OK, I realize they probably file them or maybe even use a small scissors, but I’ll admit I still do a little ‘trimming’ with my teeth now and then. It’s just so satisfying! But such trimming is now a rarity; mostly I clean and file my nails and moisturize the skin a couple times a day. I guess I’ve been a little obsessed with them lately, but I’m so happy to have kicked a decades-long habit!

My other major accomplishment for 2009 is that I finally hit the weight I said would be my final goal. It’s two pounds under the highest weight in the normal range for my height, and 18 pounds higher than the lowest weight. So technically I’m no longer overweight, though when I look at the lower half of my body, I know I could stand to lose another 10 to 15 pounds. But right now I’m just happy to be staying within 2 pounds up or down from my goal. If I stay at this weight for the rest of my life, I’ll be thrilled!

As for the rest of my resolutions, I was quite successful with some and a bit lacking in others. The lowest rating I gave myself was a ‘4’ in home exercise (I dance and bike but can’t seem to motivate myself to do crunches or lift weights); my highest score was again a ‘9’ for daily prayer. That’s probably the most important one anyway, and the activity I certainly enjoy the most.

In January I also defined two goals for myself which I’d hoped to achieve by the end of the year. I must say that I’m not any closer to discerning my charisms or discovering my passion now than I was at the start of the year. But these goals are really on the back burner as far as I’m concerned. I’m having a ball doing, for the most part, what I want to do, when I want to do it. My routine has a pretty good mix of hobbies (photography, dancing, blogging), household responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, maintenance), volunteering (at church and at a non-profit organization), spirituality (praying, journaling, worship) and socializing (meals and games with family, and friends). I’m no longer testing for the presence of certain charisms, nor am I taking any steps to determine how passionate I am about some of my favorite activities. Come December, I might look back on certain events and come to a different conclusion about my gifts, abilities and passions. But for now I’m just living my life, trying to do everything I do for the glory of God, and striving to be the best person I can be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Into the Silence

For a person who can have as much ‘quiet time’ as I want during the day, I didn’t think participation in a silent retreat would be all that special. Still, when I learned of the retreat in my Praying with the Scriptures group, something told me that I should go. I had no idea what was meant by a ‘directed’ retreat, but I sent in my registration form nonetheless, and headed to the retreat center in a northern suburb on the last weekend in May.

I loved everything about the experience from the moment I arrived. Sister Rosemarie, whom I’d met at the convent where our prayer group was held, was there to greet me and show me to my room. After I settled in, I joined her and the other retreat participants for a light supper. I felt an immediate bond with these women, even though I’d never met most of them (a few were Praying with Scriptures ‘alumni’ too). Our meal was not silent, so I got to learn a little bit about each of them through our brief conversations. Afterwards, we headed to a cozy meeting room where we met the retreat’s three spiritual directors.

Our orientation opened with introductions, song and prayer. The directors then gave us an overview of the weekend. They explained that except for our noon meal in the cafeteria and our sessions with our individual spiritual directors, we were to remain silent so as to devote all of our thoughts and words to the Lord. We could spend our time reading scriptures or other materials, praying, meditating, journaling, or just communing with nature. It all sounded very peaceful!

The directors distributed handouts with suggested scripture readings, instructions on how to pray and how to review our prayer sessions, the role of a spiritual director, awareness exercises, and much more. It was a lot to read, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I knew I had a lot of time to devour this information, and was ready to plunge in.

After each retreatant was assigned times for meeting with her spiritual director, we went to our rooms. It was only about 8:30 pm and I figured I’d be able to go to bed early for a change. I knew that Terry was at our Friday night dance, and if I had been home I’d be there too, not getting to bed till after midnight. I decided to read the first suggested reading on the list, John 1:35-38. It was short but powerful. I meditated on it for almost an hour, and then wrote in my journal for another hour. Even after I climbed into bed, I continued to imagine myself in the room where Christ had invited me to ‘Come and See’ where He was staying. I had a wonderful conversation with Him (or colloquy, as I learned it is called in one of the handouts). I still went to sleep before midnight, and had the most restful 8 hours of sleep that I’d had in ages!

And so it went the entire weekend. It was amazingly easy for me to block out distracting thoughts of everyday life and simply pray, ponder the scriptures, or have a running conversation with Christ. I also seemed to have heightened awareness of my surroundings, savoring each bite of food, basking in the warmth of the sun, appreciating the beauty of the serene wooded grounds. Toward the end of the retreat I realized that I hadn’t bitten my fingernails all weekend. At home I’d been trying so hard (with mild success) to break myself of this habit, but here the thought had never entered my mind.

The sessions with my spiritual director were was also great blessings. Dianne was soft-spoken and empathic, listening kindly as I told of the initial anxiety over my retirement decision, my search for a purposeful life, and the joy I received from my fruitful prayer sessions. In keeping with her role, she didn’t offer a lot of advice, but did share a couple of insights. Regarding my desire to discern God’s plan for me, she said that sometimes all He wants is for us to “Suit up and show up.” For me, that means continuing with my daily prayer meditations, and keeping the Lord in my consciousness every single day. She suggested that I look for God in everything I do: dancing, working with youth, volunteering, relating to family and friends. Look too, she said, for the gifts I might bring to each of these situations, as well as those gifts that others bring from my benefit. Her comments echoed ideas I’ve considered in the past, but it was good to hear someone else put them into words.

Throughout the weekend I continued to mull over Dianne’s comments, which, along with my own prayerful reflections, evolved into what I came to dub my ‘Four Step Plan’. So here is my new approach for leading a meaningful and Spirit-filled life:

1) Look for God in everyone I meet and in everything I do.
2) Look for ways that the Holy Spirit has gifted me so I can make these events blessing to others. Think about how I can use these same gifts in other situations.
3) Look for ways that the Holy Spirit is working through others to instruct and inspire me. Reap the benefits of these gifts for my own spiritual, mental, and emotional growth.
4) Pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit to decide which activities I should cultivate, and which I should diminish, or even eliminate. I felt then, as I do now, that when I am engaged in the work God intends for me, I will know that it’s right beyond a shadow of a doubt. Just as I knew that coming to this retreat was the right thing to do.

Our weekend closed with a sharing of experiences by the other retreatants, which were often poignant and uplifting. As I drove back home, I thanked God for all of the blessings I received from the scriptures, from the other retreat participants, from the spiritual directors, and from the presence of God that came to me in the silence. I’m looking forward to putting my Four Step Plan into practice, and to going back for comfort and conversation to the room where Jesus invited me to “Come and see” where He lives.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rest Stops on the Journey

So here I am on my journey in search of God’s plan, and just like so many passengers on so many trips, I find myself asking “Are we there yet?” In my very first blog I said I’d be on this journey for the rest of my life, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder about the progress I’ve made so far.

When I first heard about charisms, I thought that by now I’d have discerned the spiritual gifts that would allow the Holy Spirit to work through me. Then, I was certain, I would find the happiness and fulfillment I was seeking. But even though I can’t say that I have the gift of writing, service, teaching, or any of the other charisms I’ve tested, I find that I really have achieved a level of happiness and fulfillment that fills my heart with joy. This joy comes directly from my relationship with the Lord. It doesn’t come from any of the volunteer work, part-time jobs, or hobbies I’ve pursued over the past year and a half; it comes from spending quiet time each day praying and listening to God.

Even though the Praying with Scriptures group has ended, I continue to follow the Ignatian method of scripture meditation. And lo and behold, I have discovered that I really do have a mission, though a very basic one: my ‘mission’ is simply to deepen my personal relationship with God, to spend time with Him each and every day, and to make Him the number one priority in my life. This has been made very clear to me as I read, reflect, and reaction to each scriptural passage I contemplate. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is what the Lord intends for me to do.

So in one sense, I am ‘there’: I have discerned my retirement mission, and I continue to grow deeper in faith and in love with my Lord. And yet I am not ‘there’, because every day, more is revealed to me about God’s love, what it means to walk in the spirit, and what God’s presence in my life means to me. And though I cannot fathom what new joys and graces the Lord has in store for me, I know that they will become manifest in His time. For I know that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:8-10)

In addition to praying daily, I have been doing a lot of web-surfing and reading on spirituality. I’ve discovered a wonderful gem of a book called ‘Awareness’, by Father Anthony de Mello. One of his stories is particularly relevant to me, and I quote it here in its entirety:

There’s a story of a disciple who told his guru that he was going to a far place to meditate and hopefully gain enlightenment. So he sent the guru a report every six months to report the progress he was making. The first report said, “Now I understand what it means to lose the self.” The guru tore up the note and threw it in the wastepaper basket. After six months he got another report, which said, “Now I have attained sensitivity to all beings.” He tore it up. Then a third report said, “Now I understand the secret of the one and the many.” It too was torn up. And so it went on for years, until finally no reports came in. After a time the guru became curious and one day there was a traveler going to that far place. The guru said, “Why don’t you find out what happened to that fellow.” Finally he got a note from his disciple. It said, “What does it matter?” And when the guru read that, he said, “He made it! He made it! He finally got it! He got it!” (Awareness, Anthony de Mello, Doubleday, 1990, page 94-95)

Some day, I hope that I too can say “What does it matter?” when I evaluate the paths I’ve taken on my spiritual trek. And although I realize that I have not yet attained enlightenment, nor have I reached the end of my journey, I have certainly come to a comfortable rest stop. And I have to say that from this vantage point, the vista stretching out before me is absolutely breathtaking.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Peace and Joy

I feel so blessed from my participation in the Praying with Scriptures group. It really has been a source of peace and joy for me! Which should come as no surprise, since the theme for Week 2 was Peace, and the theme for Week 3 was Joy.

The reading I chose for Week 2 was John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” What a beautiful, comforting passage. The first day I meditated on it, I was truly filled with peace. But as luck would have it, the next day my heart became troubled, despite the words directing it to be otherwise. The reason for my troubled heart isn’t really important, and in the end what prompted it was quite inconsequential. But I had fallen back to my old habit of playing out the same scenario over and over in my head, thinking that I should have acted differently, and beating up on myself for making what I considered a stupid decision.

But this time I felt better equipped to deal with my doubts. I continued to focus on the words “Peace I leave with you” and “Do not let your heart be troubled” whenever I began to play out the past. I also repeated the mantra “This too shall pass away”, which Father De Mello re-introduced in his video on Peace. But it was another scripture, one that was not on the list of recommended readings, which brought me true comfort. As I lay awake in the early morning hours, the passage “I am with you always.” popped into my head. And for some reason, meditating on that phrase, I knew that all was well.

I came to realize that even though my periodic insomnia is annoying, the Lord is with me through it all. Indeed, whatever is bothering me will certainly pass away, but it will, in all likelihood, be replaced with another episode of self-doubt somewhere down the road. But it really doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things. Christ is with me when my heart is troubled, He is with me when my heart is filled with joy, and He will be with me when I encounter troubles in the future. That thought brought both peace and joy to my troubled heart.

In the sharing portion of our prayer group, it was interesting to hear the reactions the others had to the various readings. One participant pointed out that everything we know on earth, both the good and the not so good, will pass away at the end of our lifetimes. How true! I usually trot out my “This too will pass” mantra when things aren’t going my way, but even the good things in life will pass away when my life is over. But how much better all will be then, when I’m with the Lord in eternity!

Another interesting observation was made by one of the program facilitators. He said that when the disciples finally recognized their companion on the road to Emmaus as the risen Lord, they didn’t berate themselves for not having known Him sooner. They didn’t focus on their past blindness, or try to analyze their short-comings – they were simply filled with joy at His presence! I will have to emulate their actions in the future, finding joy in life instead of focusing on past mistakes.

And speaking of joy, this week’s readings were truly wondrous! So many of them reinforced what I discovered in the early morning hours when Jesus reminded me that He would be with me always: that the presence of God is my true and lasting source of joy, in this lifetime and the next.

“Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:12)

“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)