Friday, 24 March 2017

A Christian Response

The next time you have to awkwardly explain at a party or office gathering why you go to church or some other place where church is a jaw dropping absurdity–here are some ways to explain it, honestly and sincerely

1. I am a Christian, and I believe that God loves me and you and everybody exactly as they are, unconditionally.
2. Yet, God loves us too much to leave us that way–I am a Christian because I believe that God is always pushing me to grow in love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.

3. I am a Christian, because I believe that my God actually chose to be human like us–and live the beautiful, painful, messy life of a human just like us–solely to love us better.

4. I am a Christian, because I believe that God rose from the dead in order to prove how much we are loved.

5. I am a Christian, because I believe that my God gives me the tools–and the command–to spread the story of resurrection and love to those who need it most.

6. I am a Christian, because I believe that I–and all people–are invited to find healing from all pain, sorrow, and failure at God’s table during communion.

7. I am a Christian because I believe that through Jesus, God declared that death, hate and oppression are never the last word.

8. I am a Christian, because I believe that, in our very busy world, my Christian faith offers me a time to slow down and take my relationships seriously.

9. I am a Christian, because I believe that, in our divided and fearful world, my Christian faith offers me a way to live into connection, belonging, and trust.

10. I am a Christian, because I believe that racism, and sexism, and all the isms that separate us from seeing each other as full humans, are resistances to God's love, and in faith, we are called to stand up against them.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Some Facts About Contemplation

As Mother Theresa was beginning to become known for her charitable work in India, she gained the interest of the press. During an interview, she was questioned about prayer. The reporter asked her: "You must pray often to God." "Certainly", she answered. "And what is it that you say to God?"  She answered: "Usually, I say nothing. I just sit there to listen." The reported then asked: "So then, what does God say to you?"  Mother Theresa answered: "God says nothing to me. God just listens; and if you don’t understand what I mean by this, please don’t ask me, because I can’t explain it."

Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth century lay brother who lived out his life in a Carmelite Monastery in Paris. He is most know for his book which is now a Christian classic. This book is called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” When speaking about prayer, Brother Lawrence wrote: “In prayer, I make it my business only to persevere in His Holy presence, wherein I keep myself, by a simple attention, and a general fond regard for God, which I call an actual presence of God.”

In our Christian faith tradition, we have many kinds of prayers. There is formal prayer like the "Our Father".  There is spontaneous prayer.  We have intercessory prayer where we pray for others or ourselves.  Music can also be a prayer.  But one of the best kept secrets in the Church today is the prayer called “contemplation”. The two stories I started with about Mother Theresa and Brother Lawrence are about contemplative prayer.

During my diaconate formation years between 1978 and 1982, I moved deeper into “formal” prayer. As candidates, we were encouraged to do Church prayer, which as you know, is very structured with psalms and responses, scripture readings, and other form prayers like the “Our Father”. It follows a fairly strict format. 

What I began to discover as I did this structured prayer was that after it was over, I would often move into a period of silence. With the task of reading now over, my thoughts would fall away; and I would move into a stillness from which I had no interest in returning, at least right away. Over a period of time, I discovered it was this time of stillness and silence that was the most beneficial part of the whole church prayer. This was the time when I had the experience of being closest to God. 

 As the years passed, the times of silence became dominate, and the other fell to lessor importance. Contemplative prayer became foundational to my spiritual journey. I’ve now been practicing contemplation for over forty years ago, so I have become quite familiar with it, but I’m still surprised at how few know about it. So I would like to speak briefly about it in this posting.

My first exposure to contemplation was through the writings of Fr. Thomas Merton. He was certainly the most contemporary writer on contemplation in our current time. As you probably know, most of his books were written during his many years as a Trappist monk at Gethsemane in Kentucky during the forties and fifties. His little book called “Contemplative Prayer” is one of my favorites. Thomas Merton brought alive this ancient tradition which had been all but lost by the mainline church. Not that it didn’t exist. Over the course of church history, it was very present in the contemplative monastic communities. Among the many saints, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila were contemplatives themselves and wrote much about it, but it was largely considered a type of prayer reserved for those who had chosen a cloistered life. Thomas Merton changed that.

In the sixties, Pope Paul the V1, recognized the need to revive the contemplative side of the Catholic church. Therefore, he encouraged the contemplative communities, such as the monasteries, to begin to explore ways to bring this dimension more to the forefront.  Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk from Snowmass Colorado, took up this task, and with a few of his contemporaries, introduced contemplation to the larger community. Since the group experience of contemplation was one of being centered on Christ, it became known as “centering prayer”.

Thomas Keating wrote a trilogy of books which explained in detail everything that one needed to know about “centering

prayer". I was introduced to his books in 1997 while on a four week retreat at the Gethsemane in Kentucky. After reading his books, I changed my own contemplative approach to the method he recommended, and have followed it ever since. Next to Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keatings’ books have had the greatest influence on my life.

During this same time frame, a Benedictine monk by the name of Fr. John Main from London England started an approach to contemplative prayer similar to Thomas Keating. John Main himself discovered this prayer while on a foreign assignment to Malaysia. Swami Satyananda, a local holy man from that country, seeing Main’s eagerness to deepen his Christian faith, introduced him to this very simple form of prayer where thoughts, images, concepts, feelings are all left behind in order to realize, first and foremost, God’s indwelling presence. 

Upon returning to England, and becoming a monk, the Benedictine order to which he belonged would not permit him to use this form of prayer as it was unknown to them. Being a faithful monk, Fr. Main complied, but later he discovered through his reading of the conferences of John Cassian, one of the early fathers of the church, that this type of prayer had been used extensively in the past. Thus he began his task of introducing contemplation to the greater community. He called it “Christian Meditation”.

Small groups for both “Centering Prayer” and “Christian Meditation”, using these two streams of contemplative disciplines, now exist all over the world. 

 I’ve personally been involved with the Canadian Christian Meditation Community since my Kentucky retreat in 1997.

We all have a contemplative side, but we live in a world where it is difficult to embrace a contemplative life. Our culture measures successful living by an entirely different yard stick, usually built on activity and busyness. Even church often connects holiness with the activities of service and ministry. The busier you are the holier you are, it seems. A contemplative is not against activity, but the service provided must spring from a source that lies from within. And a contemplative knows that it is only from a certain depth of silence and solitude that this can be discovered.

In all the other types of prayer that were mentioned above, we are actively involved in speaking, listening, pondering or reflecting. In Christian Meditation, the process is different. The connection that is made is not by speaking to God or by thinking about God in a complicated way. We do not bring our problems to God asking that these problems be solved. Meditation has to do with being in God’s presence, being attentive to God. This is very similar to that sense of deep inner joy or interior peace that we sometimes experience at those surprising and unexpected moments: Overlooking the ocean, a sunset, a view from a high mountain. But strangely, these things do not come about by our pursuing them, or running after them, or trying to catch them. They come to us as a gift as we pause from our usual busyness and move into inner stillness. “Be still and know that I am God.” 

Each year, my wife and I attend a one week contemplative retreat at a monastery or retreat house. During these times, I follow Fr. George Maloney’s “Eight Day Self-Directed Retreat” Book called “Alone with the Alone”. I’ve done this over a dozen times by now. I would like to conclude with Maloney's introduction to this retreat experience.

“To contemplate is to move beyond your own activity and become activated by the inner power of the Holy Spirit. It means to be swept up into the threefold love current of the Trinity. In the silent prayer of the heart, (a gift of the Spirit praying with you) you move beyond feelings, emotions, even thoughts. The Spirit is so powerfully operative that imagining or reasoning can only be noise that disturbs the silent communication of God at the core of your being. If you introduce noise by speaking words and fashioning images of God, then you are limiting His freedom to speak His words as He wishes, when He wishes. The Holy Spirit frees you so God can give Himself to you. With utter freedom and joy, respond always in deep silence and humble self-surrender to His Inner Presence."

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Telling Their Stories Article from Linda MacDonald

Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back

Isabella Bick started writing stories about her life about seven years ago as part of a program called Guided Autobiography. Some of her stories involve the pain of being a refugee when she was a young girl. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

ISABELLA S. BICK’S parents, both Jewish physicians, never talked about the past after the family moved from Fascist Italy to the United States in 1939. She was 8 at the time and quickly learned it was best to keep her feelings of loss and loneliness to herself.
Her silence ended — and those emotions broke free — when Ms. Bick, now 84 and a psychotherapist living in Sharon, Conn., began writing bits and pieces of her life story a few years ago. In one vignette, she describes the trauma of moving with her parents and younger brother into a cramped apartment with her father’s Russian family in Troy, N.Y.
Her parents dealt with their grief by refusing to speak Italian at home or to reminisce about their life in Europe. So young Isabella did not tell them about the schoolmates who taunted her or the teacher who shouted at her. She was determined “to invent an American little girl” as quickly as possible, reading poems aloud each night until she lost her accent.
In bed, though, she slept with the brown lambskin coat that she had worn on the ocean voyage to America. Ms. Bick writes that she had “endowed Coat with very special magical qualities” and that she dreamed of returning to her home in Tuscany and her beloved nanny. “With Coat close to me, I felt I could hide my Italian self, not yet totally lost, and not yet reveal my still unformed American self — I could hold on precariously to both — for a little while longer.”
Like many older people who write their life stories, Ms. Bick found some peace in looking back. “Writing is painful because it brings back memories,” she said in a recent interview. But when she began writing, Ms. Bick said, she recognized “that there was this joyous little girl” whom she could finally “reclaim.” And she described “an awe that I survived some of the things I went through.”
Ms. Bick, who has three children and three grandchildren, considers her stories a gift to future generations — and to past ones. “I am keeping my parents and grandparents alive,” she said. “And, as an egotist, I am keeping myself alive. I am remembered.”
Whether they are writing full-blown memoirs or more modest sketches or vignettes, many older people like Ms. Bick are telling their life stories. Some are taking life-story writing classes at local colleges, libraries and adult learning centers, while others are hiring “personal historians” to record oral histories or to produce videos that combine interviews, home movies and family photos. Some opt to write a “legacy letter,” which imparts values to the next generations. New websites enable families to create digital personal histories that can be preserved for their descendants.

This photograph of the family of Isabella Bick’s mother was taken in Kalisz, Poland. Those who remained in Poland were later killed in the Holocaust. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Ms. Bick took a course called Guided Autobiography, in which a trained instructor draws out students’ memories and helps them channel their thoughts and recollections into essays. Most guided autobiography classes are taught in person, but Ms. Bick joined five other participants and the instructor on a special interactive website to write and share stories over 10 weekly sessions. They could see one another in little windows on the screen as they explored life themes like family, money and spirituality.
Cheryl Svensson, who is the director of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies and who taught Ms. Bick’s class, said she had trained more than 300 instructors worldwide.
Pat McNees, who conducts guided autobiography classes in person in Bethesda, Md., said getting feedback from a supportive group “gives you a perspective on your life.” For example, Ms. McNees said, someone whose family struggled with money problems but spent lots of time together may come out with a “positive take on life” when listening to another participant who had a lonely childhood because the father was always at work.
Research by many gerontologists — including James E. Birren, who created the discipline of guided autobiography — has found that reminiscing can improve the confidence of older adults. By recalling how they overcame past struggles, they are better able to confront new challenges, doctors say, and they may be able to forgive themselves for their mistakes. Moreover, a life review can help with grieving, research has found.
Armed with this knowledge, many nursing homes and assisted living facilities are offering storytelling programs. Bonita Heilman has conducted about 20 story groups — in which three or four residents meet for five or six sessions — at the Harbor, an assisted-living center in Norwood Young America, Minn. Ms. Heilman, the center’s life enrichment coordinator, uses a program called Life Reflection Story, developed by Celebrations of Life, a company in Minneapolis.
Ms. Heilman will ask questions on topics like childhood and parents. She then compiles each resident’s life story, and family photographs, into a bound book of about 30 pages.
Most Harbor residents were farmers. “They tell stories about when they were productive citizens working toward the greater good,” Ms. Heilman said. “Remembering gives them self-esteem at a time when they can no longer do the things they once could do.”
 Isabella Bick with her mother, Taula Bick, in a photograph taken in Milan around 1934. The Bick family later fled Italy for the United States. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

One resident, Sylvia Kuenzel, 88, said she “had fun listening to the stories” of the other two residents in her group. Mrs. Kuenzel said she got a real lift when she thought for the first time in years about her favorite childhood Christmas gift: a pair of white ankle boots.
In her story book, Mrs. Kuenzel writes that her “saddest childhood memory” was when her father’s grocery store fell on hard times and her parents had to sell their two-story home in the small farming town of Lafayette, Minn. Her parents and their seven children moved into two bedrooms behind the store. Looking back at her parents’ difficult lives, Mrs. Kuenzel said in a recent interview, “I think I appreciate them more than I did at the time.”

Mrs. Kuenzel gave up her job as a nurse when she married a farmer, Dennis, who died in 2013. She described farming as round-the-clock work. But writing her story, she said, helped her see that she had dealt well with the hardships and created a good life for her four children. “I made it, so I guess I was O.K.,” Mrs. Kuenzel said. She also “realized what is most important” — and it was a comfort to share those lessons with her children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Among those lessons: the importance of focusing on the positive, hard work and treating people right.
Storytelling also can benefit terminally ill patients by addressing their need to feel that life has purpose. One end-of-life treatment is called Dignity Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. During a 30- to 60-minute audiotaped session, a therapist will ask patients questions about their most important accomplishments, the experiences that made them feel most alive and their hopes for loved ones. Patients can give the transcribed interview to friends and family.
Lori P. Montross-Thomas, a psychologist in the La Jolla community in San Diego, who was trained as a dignity therapist by Dr. Chochinov, said she recalled one man who had talked about an arduous hike with friends. After bad weather set in that day, he told her, he walked ahead to the base camp. He remembered the joy on his friends’ faces when he greeted them with hot chocolate. These patients “may have lost the ability to be in physical control, but when they share that kind of story, their body goes back there,” said Dr. Montross-Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. “And they get to share the stories of their strengths with loved ones.”
In several studies of dignity therapy, patients reported an increased sense of purpose and meaning. A study of family members of patients who had died said the transcripts consoled them while they grieved.
Hearing a parent’s story may be as important to the adult child as it is to the older person telling it. Bill Erwin, 69, who lives in Durham, N.C., interviewed his father, using a tape recorder, many years ago. He said he cherished the story about how his grandfather peddled pianos from the back of his truck to rural households in Hope, Ark., during the Depression. “That’s how he made enough sales to keep the lights on at his music store,” Mr. Erwin said.

It is a story of resourcefulness that Mr. Erwin is passing on to his two sons. He says he regrets not collecting more stories from his parents, and he wants to ensure his sons don’t have similar regrets — so now he is writing his own life story vignettes. And Mr. Erwin, a retired communications executive, has started a new business: creating personal-history videos for other families.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Discipline of Centering Prayer

 Fr. George Maloney wrote an eight-day retreat experience called “Alone With The Alone”. This retreat book is written from the stance of contemplative prayer. Also,  Fr. Thomas Keating through his writing on contemplative prayer, explains the discipline of Centering prayer in his book "Open Mind, Open Heart". Paradoxically, my discovery of the writings of both Maloney and Keating happened at the same time, and they blended together in such a way as to provide a path of light that I would follow in the years to come.


Maloney’s approach was simple. Over an eight-day period, he guides one through an exploration of Jesus’ life from a contemplative perspective, providing scripture reflections, but more importantly, times of stillness, times to listen to the gentle movements of the spirit within oneself. In the introduction, he would write: (pg. 24)

“To contemplate is to move beyond your own activity and become activated by the inner power of the Holy Spirit. It means to be swept up into the threefold love current of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the silent prayer of the heart, a gift of the Spirit praying within you, you move beyond feelings, emotions, even thoughts. The Spirit is so powerfully operative that imagining or reasoning can only be noise that disturbs the silent communication of God at the core of your being. If you introduce “noise” by speaking words and fashioning images of God, then you are limiting His freedom to speak His word as He wishes, when He wishes. The Holy Spirit frees you so God can give Himself to you. With utter freedom and joy, respond always in deep silence and humble self-surrender to His inner presence.”


Fr. Thomas Keating’s book “Open Mind Open Heart”, although on the same subject, was entirely different. It was more like a “how to do” book explaining what contemplation is and what it is not, the history of contemplation, a chapter by chapter description on how to do it followed by a very detailed discussion on the difficulties encountered by others with responses. Although it is not my purpose here to explain the techniques of centering prayer, I have quoted the following from his book (pg. 110) to explain his teaching.

The method

“To do this systematically, take up a comfortable position that will enable you to sit still. Close your eyes. Half of the world disappears for we generally think most about what we see. In order to slow down the usual flow of thoughts, think just one thought. For this purpose choose a word of one or two syllables with which you feel comfortable.

A general loving look toward God may be better suited to the disposition of some persons. But the same procedures are followed as in the use of the sacred word. The word is a sacred word because it is the symbol of your intention to open yourself to the mystery of God’s presence beyond thoughts, images and emotions. It is chosen not for its content but for its intent. It is merely a pointer that expresses the direction of your inward movement towards the presence of God.

To start, introduce the sacred word in your imagination as gently as if you were laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton. Keep thinking the sacred word in whatever form it arises. It is not meant to be repeated continuously. The word can flatten out, become vague or just an impulse of the will, or even disappear. Accept it in whatever form it arises.

When you become aware that you are thinking some other thoughts, return to the sacred word as the expression of your intent. The effectiveness of this prayer does not depend on how distinctly you say the sacred word or how often, but rather on the gentleness with which you introduce it into your imagination in the beginning and the promptness with which you return to it when you are hooked on some other thought.

Thoughts are an inevitable part of centering prayer. Our ordinary thoughts are like boats sitting on a river so closely packed together that we cannot see the river that is holding them up. A thought in the context of this prayer is any perception that crosses the inner screen of consciousness. We are normally aware of one object after another passing across the inner screen of consciousness: images, memories, feelings, external impressions. When we slow down that flow for a little while, space begins to appear between the boats. Up comes the reality on which they are floating.

The prayer of centering is a method of directing your attention from the particular to the general, from the concrete to the formless. At first you are preoccupied by the boats that are going by. You become interested in seeing what is on them. But just let them all go by. If you catch yourself becoming interested in them, return to the sacred word as the expression of the movement of your whole being toward God present within you.

The sacred word is a simple thought that you are thinking at ever deepening levels of perception. That’s why you accept the scared word in whatever form it arises within you. The word on your lips is exterior and has no part in this form of prayer. The thought in you imagination is interior; the word as an impulse of your will is more interior still. Only when you pass beyond the word into pure awareness is the process of interiorization complete. That is what Mary of Bethany was doing at the feet of Jesus. She was going beyond the words she was hearing to the Person who was speaking and entering into union with Him. This is what we are doing as we sit in centering prayer interiorizing the sacred word. We are going beyond the sacred word into union with that to which it points—the Ultimate Mystery, the Presence of God, beyond any perception that we can form of him.” 

So this became my practice, and it opened up pathways to moments with the Lord that surpassed all my previous experience. The Lord always seem to catch my attention through consolation, and then gently lead me to solid ground where participation with Him is sought without so much inner fanfare and delight. The danger with too much consolation is that we can begin to seek it instead of maturing into a union with God based on faith along. Without God’s gentle wisdom on this matter, we can end up chasing after the wake of the ship when God wants to take us on board where we can be shaped into a proper vehicle of His love and service. But at the same time, grace beckons us to let go of any resistances to God’s love and to flow with ease towards this way of life He desires for us.

It was never too difficult for me to discipline myself to practice this prayer for the recommended two sessions a day of at least twenty minutes each. I looked forward to this time and gauged the rest of my day around these grace filled  times of just sitting in silence before the Lord.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Strangers In The Box

Come, look with me inside this drawer
In this box I've often seen
At the pictures, black and white
Faces proud, still and serene.

I wish I knew the people
These strangers in the box
Their names and all their memories
Are lost among the socks.

I wonder what their lives were like, 
How did they spend their days/
What about their special times?
I'll never know their ways.

If only someone would have taken time,
To tell who, what, and when,
Those faces of my heritage
Would come to life again.

Could this become the fate
Of the pictures we take today?
The faces and the memories
Someday to be tossed away.

Make time to save your pictures
Seize the opportunity when it knocks
Or someday you and yours could be
The strangers in the Box.

Pam Harazim

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Legacy Writing Course St. John XXIII


Saint John XX111 Parish April 11 - June 06 ,2017

The Catholic Grandparents Association of Saint John XX111 Parish in Dartmouth is reoffering Guided Autobiography, a guided writing course based on Dr. James E. Birren's 25 years of autobiographical writing experience in small group settings that was presented to two groups last year in St. John XX111.

The course is 8 weeks long , one 2.5 hour lesson/practicum each week. Your Instructor is Linda MacDonald, retired professor from St. Mary's University and trained in the Birren method at University of Southern California.  (Google: Guided Autobiography: Writing and Telling stories of Lives JE Birren)

A suggested offering for the 8 week course, including lesson materials and background information is $ 38.00 per person.

The course helps us to recall and write our life story, to explore major themes in our lives like work, home, relationships, faith, death and much more. Participants in this course will have a personal , professionally designed summary of your live and faith which makes an excellent gift to pass on to families ...your legacy .

We plan to begin this course on April 11 th. but this may change to meet special requirements .

Deacon Tom Smith at St. Ignatius , 902-835-2910  

Ron Beed, at 902-435-5409  

Deacon Len Moore,  902- 434-0567

Linda at 902-435-1966.