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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Challenges of Virtual Living

Those who know me well have heard my mantra of these past few years along the lines of, "How did I end up here?"  I am an introvert and a somewhat private person - or at least until I founded AWBA and was invited into the social media realm if we wanted any opportunity to connect with all of you.  Although this land with AWBA feels very unfamiliar at times, it often feels like something I know from a very long time ago and had forgotten.  As I work to integrate my inner life and outer life, the tension of walking the fine line between Public AWBA Life and Private Judy Life has become more noticeable within me.  I am AWBA and AWBA is me.   The line is fading.  I realize that so much of leading a nonprofit is grounded in building a relationship between the organization and those being served.  This includes myself as the founder, and our board members who are very active in helping get the word out and building relationships within their own circle of influence.  The AWBA virtual community must have a sense of who we are as individuals before you trust us with your financial and in-kind donations, trust us by registering for an event, and trust us by referring people to us who you believe could be served by what we do.  

I do recognize the need to put myself out there with some degree of vulnerability through these blog posts, our Facebook page, the AWBA newsletter and other avenues of communication.  It is inviting me well beyond my safe comfort zone,  and I suspect some of you resonate with that as well.   I think at the root of all of this is getting past the initial sense that I am publicizing myself in some way.  As I follow other online, non-profit founders through their virtual world meanderings, I see deep sharing in what they post.  It always draws my attention to their personal growing edges (which is a helpful connection for me) and to their ministry to others.  It is my deepest hope as I continue to learn how to "do this" that you, as our readers, will always be drawn to what AWBA is about and to my own personal journey as it connects with your journey.  

I guess all of this is offered as preface to the fact that I went beyond my comfort zone yet again.  I have shared in prior communication about my connection to Abbey of the Arts - a virtual monastery founded by Christine Valters Paintner.  Christine has played a huge role in so many facets of my spiritual growth.   A few months ago, she asked me to write a guest post for her blog.  Although I quickly agreed to it at the time, as the deadline approached the Private Judy Life came to the forefront.  With God's help, I pushed past it and wrote in a stream of consciousness.  You can read it here.  If something in this story resonates with you, take a moment to comment on our blog by clicking the comment link below and/or by sharing a response on the Abbey's blog post.  Either will find its way to me.  I now know it was a good step to take in the midst of great discomfort.  AWBA is receiving inquiries, and additions to our newsletter list.  So, I am breathing a bit easier today :)  Take time to visit Christine's Abbey.  She offers a wonderful array of opportunities if this is something that intrigues you.  

The virtual world can be used in ways that are not helpful which, I suspect, is where the discomfort arises.  However, AWBA and many others are learning how it is used for good.  Thank you Christine for making AWBA a part of the Abbey.  Thank you Stacy Wills for posting us on your Sacred Alter Blog.  Thank you to others who share about who we are via their virtual world, and I don't necessarily know about it.  Drop me a note to let me know.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Do you play in the rain?

Many years ago, our son gave me this card.  I love the exuberant joy that fills this child's entire body, head to toe.  The inside reads, "Soak it up.  Congratulations."  I do not recall what he was congratulating me for and, unfortunately, I did not date it.  However, I have kept it on a shelf in our family room because of the note he wrote beneath the Hallmark sentiment.  He asked me,  "Do you play in the rain?"

Although I did not intend to make my daily sunrise walks a spiritual practice,  it has become just that.  I do it because I enjoy it and, slowly, I have noticed a difference in how I am able to move through the day with greater peace and awareness of God's presence regardless of what circumstance collides with my well-planned day.  There is something to be said about a daily rhythm that begins with a simple walk through whatever force of nature greets me that morning.  The "practice" part is now becoming more apparent as the weather becomes a bit less favorable.  

I have had a few recent days that were dry but very chilly at 7:15 in the morning.  Two days last week were a bit warmer with a steady rain.  I am accumulating the necessary attire to support me in  my desire to show up, five mornings a week, regardless of the environment.   I thought of my son's question last Friday morning as I walked alone in a somewhat drenching rainfall.   My pants became wet at the ankles, my shoes approached the stage of "squishy", my right shoulder (uncovered by my umbrella) began to absorb the wet.  But I kept walking barely aware that "normal" people might not think it a good morning for a walk.  All of the fall leaves and mums are gone.  There is an abundance of wheat and copper color foliage and, in some places, bright red berries.   The coming winter brings such clarity and simplicity in the midst of a barren landscape. 

What does it mean, really, to "play in the rain"?  I have had life seasons in which there have been little sense of play.  Hard circumstances surrounded me and the concept of play, joy, and frivolity seemed well beyond reach.  It almost seems an insult to be asked that question in those times.  But, this card has served as a constant reminder.  As I walked in the rain on Friday,  I felt an answer bubbling up.  Yes, I have learned ways to allow joy and play into circumstances that would have made that choice quite a challenge a few years ago.   Then there are days when the rain is pounding and heavy.  The idea of play or taking it in stride is nearly impossible and, honestly, would seem inauthentic if I declared play as an option.

So as I walked in the rain that morning remembering summer days filled with sunshine and abundant foliage, I realized that while playing in the rain is often more possible than we think, sometimes simply showing up in the rain and putting one foot in front of the other as best we can is just enough.  

How do you play in the rain?  As we enter into this season of gratitude, perhaps it is an opportunity to find ways to say "thank you" especially on those days when your particular rainfall seems heavier than you think you can absorb.  Can you find a seed of playful hope waiting to be embraced?  And, then, there are those times when unrelenting waves of sadness pour down upon us without relief.  In those times, it seems best to simply experience it for what it is.  We reach out to a friend for support, call on God who companions us through everything, and hold out hope that we will learn how to play in that new land by showing up every morning (always beginning again) and putting one foot in front of the other.  It is my deepest prayer that AWBA can companion you in some of those places on your journey.  It is why we exist.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falling leaves of autumn ...

Falling leaves of autumn,
with each stem that breaks,
with each layer of perishing,
you teach me what is required,
if I am to grow before I die.

~~ Joyce Rupp

It is early morning.  The sun is expected to rise in about 20 minutes.  I usually embark on a 50-minute brisk walk shortly after sunrise every morning.  But in this moment, there is a wintry mix falling in the darkness.  I know the sun will still rise, and suspect it will be well hidden from my view this morning.  I have been in my art studio for about 45 minutes with the window open.  It is a little chilly, but I want to hear the rain falling on the drying leaves.  Such a gentle sound - a whisper from God.  My studio is where I pray.  It is where I create.  It is where I journal.  It is where I wonder.  I have just begun a three-week on-line art class and we are working with falling leaves this week.  I am ready to begin painting, sketching and collaging ...

I often return to this quote by Joyce Rupp ~~ during the autumn season, certainly, and also during other times of year when there is yet another layer perishing in my always transitioning life.  If I am not mindful of the loss, I will miss the growing lesson.  I try to be mindful.

In her most recent post on Spirit of Sogetsu, Michelle Rogers shares about her own experience of releasing.  Stop by if you have not already done so.  I recognize that some people are inclined to miss the blessing of Autumn out of concern for Winter nipping at their heels (and their thermostats).  They are summer people and the change of seasons is not cheerfully anticipated.  I have come to appreciate the slowing of autumn - the afternoon light, the smell of composting leaves, and the colors previewing a coming season that further invites a slowing down for even more clarity.  

AWBA continues to work on its three-year strategic plan (near completion!).  This process has invited our board to be clear by releasing those things that seem less urgent to make space for the best of the better.  How about you?  Whether in your work, family or personal life, what might need to break away?  Is there something you have been holding onto out of habit and/or comfort even though it no longer seems to be serving you and those around you in a life-giving manner?  For those impacted by a chronic diagnosis, there is often a perpetual release of layers - often uninvited and, sometimes, unanticipated.  Learn from God's created cycle of nature.  For me, it is always a matter of trust.  Can I trust that as something breaks and falls away into the compost of my past that a deep teaching will become clear and new life will spring forth?  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

SoulCollage for Hope

What a wonderful day we had yesterday!!  Our facilitator, MJ Abell, created a hope-filled altar space for us, supplied a wide variety of images from which to choose, and a gentle presence so we could create from our soul. The Worthington Hills Country Club offered a peaceful environment with attentive staff.   God provided a beautiful blue sky and warm temperatures for our journey to and from.  What more could we have asked for?

There were 14 of us cutting and gluing after an extended time of collecting more images than we could ever fit on our three cards!  Many took images home to continue this wonderful practice in our own time and space.

It was a meaningful and fun day.  AWBA  looks forward to offering this again in the future.   

Monday, September 16, 2013

What to say (and not to say) when you don't know what to say.

When I have been in places of anxiety, fear, grief,  loss, etc. due to the impact of a chronic diagnosis, it feels that almost everyone trying to support me says or does the "wrong" thing, or is so fearful of entering into my world that they become non-existent until the storm stabilizes.  At the time when we most need support, we can feel most isolated.  I know that people cannot read  my mind to know what I need.  At the same time, it is hard to find words to express what is needed.  It can be a vicious cycle.  

I have one perfect example of everything coming together in just the right way at the right time ...  

My father passed away about five years ago in the midst of one of the coldest and harshest winters in recent history.  It had been a painful season of life with a cancer diagnosis that moved quickly through my previously healthy, energetic father.  After the funeral, my husband, son and myself would be traveling about three hours from the cemetery to a restaurant near my parent's home where we would gather with a few family members that evening.  My husband and I had bought a small, weekend cottage in an area near my parents and we planned to spend the night there after dinner.  The thought of returning to our darkened cottage that had been closed up for two weeks because of the weather was almost more than I could bear.  I knew that snow would cover the walkway, no lights would be on and the temperature would be set at 50 degrees. It was either that or return to our home an hour away late at night.  Neither seemed ideal.

Having very little energy to ask for anything from anyone by that time, God gave me the words for an "ask" of a close friend who lived very near to our cottage.  I almost choked back the request because it felt too large to me at the time.  I asked if she would be willing to drive to our cottage and trudge through the snow to turn on a light and turn up the heat.  She said "yes" without a second thought. 

At the end of a very painful day, we arrived at our our cottage in the woods with its lights shining brightly.  A pathway had been cleared in the snow and the heat embraced us as we opened the front door. On the kitchen table was a beautifully wrapped basket of surprises for us -- nothing expensive, but everything that was needed in that moment.  I had not seen my friend for quite some time and, I don't believe I saw her for what a while after that.  But she and her husband were with us in Spirit.   We were deeply embraced in that moment and not alone.  I felt safe.

A friend of mine recently shared this blog link.  It is another person's response to this question.  This writer offers her perspective as one grieving the death of a parent, but I find her wisdom applicable to those living with a chronic diagnosis.  All of these resonate with me.  How could she know??  #9 is what has brought me the most pain over the years.  How about you?  Is there something you might add to this list?  If you find some or all of this helpful, you might want to adapt if for your own story and give it to those who are part of your support network.  They will likely appreciate your honesty and clarity.

One important note - Although I have traveled many journeys through this land of chronic diagnosis and grief, I know there are times I still say and do the "wrong" thing for someone else who is struggling.  Each of our stories and needs are different.  We do not know how another feels -- ever.  What worked for me will likely not work for you and I may trip over myself in my attempts at compassion.  So, offering grace to one another and to ourselves is critical.  For the many times someone's support felt wrong and anything but helpful, I have always been grateful that they tried.  Likewise, I trust that others are grateful for my sometimes misguided attempts at support. 

It seems that carrying an awareness, continuing to learn, and listening with the ear of the heart is the most important piece.  When we do that, the rest seems to fall into place and the sense of abandonment and isolation are not so heavy.

If you are in need of support, take the risk of a seemingly big ask as I did.  If there is someone who might need your support, meet their need as best you know how and go one step further.  It need not be complicated and certainly not expensive.

Prayer is vital and sometimes we need God with skin on as well ...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

First PayPal, Now Facebook ...

For those who receive our monthly newsletters, you know that we recently began accepting charge payments and donations through our website utilizing PayPal.  Today, we launched our presence on Facebook.  I rely on our readers to let me know what is working for them and what is not working for them.  So, please, if you have difficulty accessing anything we do with technology, send me an email at director@myawba.org.  We are always learning and always in process.  Someone shared with me recently that one of the pages on our website could not be opened because I mistakenly attached it in "pages" format, only accessible to Mac users.  Yikes.  This page was posted last November!  I have to wonder how many people tried to open that page in the past year and could not do so. So, don't be shy about offering suggestions to make this site more user friendly and helpful.

If you are on Facebook, be sure to "like us."  We will get this button on our website in the near future.  As we see how this is being utilized, we will increase our posting activity.  I recognize that not everyone is on Facebook, so rest assured that we will continue to make full use of this blog, our website and our monthly newsletters to keep you informed.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When the Comforter Needs Comforting

As AWBA expands its virtual community through the power of the Internet, we grow with supporters and kindred spirits who share their personal stories, inspirational quotes, websites, blogs, etc.  I try to pass along as much of this goodness as possible.

One of our supporters, Julia, has been part of the AWBA family since the beginning and is one such kindred spirit.   Periodically, I receive an email from her that lifts my spirit as I am reminded there are people all over the world who are impacted by what we are about.  Julia is a caregiver and she shared with me recently, 

I came across this article today written for caregivers.  It speaks of the loneliness of when caregivers find themselves in the place of needing comfort themselves, and long for the care they themselves have poured out.  It resonated deeply with my own heart and experience, and I felt seen, heard and understood as the words washed over me.  I wanted to pass it on to you as a resource.  (click this link) For the Comforter 

My deepest gratitude to Julia for sharing her story and this particular blog post, and to Tanya Marlow and her blog link posted above.  As one who offers care as friend, family member,  Stephen Minister, chaplain, health care worker, social worker, clergy, etc. do you seek out comfort when you need it?  It can be hard to ask for support when others are "struggling so much more than I am."  It can be hard to even realize how weary you may be.  Having traveled this painful journey of compassion fatigue in my own life, I understand how subtly this comes about.    I resonate with Tanya's blog image shared above.  A man or woman with the gifts of compassion and mercy often gives the outward appearance of one who is sturdy, capable, and carrying a bottomless well of support for others who are struggling.  Then, at the end of the day or in the middle of the night, tears come unsure of who is ready to listen to the deep sadness and overwhelmingness as we prepare to do it all over again the next day.

What has been your experience with this?  Like my friend Julia, do you feel seen, heard and understood in these words or in this image?  Is there a comforter in your life who might need a word of support or a kindness to acknowledge their ministry of providing care?

For those who comfort, may you receive God's blessings of love, nurture and care in the darkest of your moments of supporting and offering care to another.  AWBA hears you.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Spirit of Sogetsu

Due to the interest in our free blog offering "The Spirit of Sogetsu - Making the Heart and Soul Connection" with Michelle Rogers, we have designed a separate blog specifically for this offering that runs through November.  The September post is now available and you can read it at www.awbasogetsu.blogspot.com.  This is a public blog and is open to anyone.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Final Story from Gilgal Farm

Another participant shares about the day's experience, 

I really enjoyed this day and it has not left me. It surprised me that I connected with a horse in such a special way.  It scared me at first, but I worked through my fear. By the end of the day, I needed no commands to get the horse to start, stop or follow me.  We just knew.  I also felt no pain until I tried to grasp the spoon (to carry the egg!).  But I definitely did not think about the constant burden of my current job and work at all during the day. I lost myself completely in something bigger than me:  God, the horse and the experience.  I have not stopped thinking about my horse since we met.  I would like to visit the farm again on my own.

This was such a wonderful day for the participants as well as for the facilitators and horse handlers.  We believe the horses had a good time as well!  

To view a Smilebox slideshow of the day's adventure, click on the Equine Event link below.  Most computers are able to download these, and it is better viewed on a desktop than on a mobile/portable device.   Currently, we use the free service for Smilebox so you may see some advertisements.  The show will begin about 20 seconds after the download is complete.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Story from Gilgal Farm ...

Saturday's equine event at Gilgal Farm was magical.  I will post pictures and a Smilebox slideshow in the near future.  For those who would like to experience the impact of equine assisted learning, The Spirituality Network is sponsoring a weekend program in October at Gilgal with the same awesome women who facilitated our event.  Visit The Divine Mirror Equine Retreat for more information.

In the meantime, I was given permission to share a photo and a story from one of our participants.

This image speaks the proverbial "thousand words" for me. I had asked my horse handler what the "divot" in Snap's side/neck was from and she explained to me that it is called "the thumbprint of God". A mark from no known source or injury and it "just is". As I braided Snap's hair I was remembering (missing) my pre-chemo hair and smiling at how I now have my granddaughter's hair to braid. I think my recent 10-year milestone of cancer recovery has me still very aware of how it could have gone and more to the point, very aware of all I have been here to see these past 10 years! I was humbled to realize that I celebrate God's "hand" in my life but am just now recognizing "it-is-what-it-is" is God's thumbprint.
Thanks for today's gifts.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Making the Heart and Soul Connection

I am excited to share with you that a close friend of mine and an AWBA supporter, Michelle Rogers, will be offering her gifts to AWBA's readers in monthly blog posts in September, October and November.  The series is entitled, 

The Spirit of Sogetsu
 Making the Heart and Soul Connection
with Flowers and Plant Materials

It is our intention that the images, dialogue, reflection questions and prompts be posted the first Monday of each month.  For those registered for the monthly AWBA email, a link will be posted in the monthly newsletters emailed throughout this series.  You may also opt to receive email notification of new blog posts by registering your email address in the "follow by email" link in the right bar of this blog.  The comment feature will be available for discussion with Michelle throughout this three-month series.  This series is part of our AWBA blog (which is public and open to anyone) and there is no charge for this event.  Michelle is a gifted Sogetsu instructor who lives with a chronic diagnosis and has also been in the role of a caregiver and support person.  I know you will appreciate the wisdom and creativity she will share with us.  She writes about her journey,

I am Michelle Rogers, a person with a lifetime of serving and caregiving experience. I’ve been a big sister, waitress, respiratory therapist, community ministry coordinator, small business owner, lay speaker, chaplain, hospice volunteer, and spiritual director.  These are a few of the jobs and positions that I have held over the years, some of which I still do. Most recently I have added Sogetsu ikebana teacher to my resume. I am instructing others in the art of Japanese flower arranging. I began my own studies in Sogetsu over a decade ago, but it wasn’t until I found myself on the receiving end of service and caregiving over the past six years, that I began to realize the spiritual and healing power that this art form offers me. It is from this place of realization that I hope to share with others both the art of Sogetsu AND personal reflections as a person who has experienced episodes of acute and chronic health conditions. 

We invite you to learn more about the spiritual value of Sogetsu as one impacted by a chronic diagnosis - whatever your role may be. I have had the experience to observe Michelle as she creates her art and to be a student in an Ikebana class at the Franklin Park Conservatory alongside her.  Both experiences made an impact on me and I am eager to make this creative expression available to others.  Watch for an upcoming online retreat and an in-person workshop with Michelle to be offered in the coming months.

Michelle, thank you for this gift :)

Friday, July 12, 2013

What to do with worry?

When I die, I want my heart and soul fully seeded with rich stories and experiences.  I want to be moving forward, falling upward, leaving my body well worn.  I want to know presence, staying with what is hard until it softens, staying with what is narrow until it expands.

-- I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, Dawna Markova

A close friend was listening to my story of anxiety and fear surrounding a particular circumstance and suggested this book by Dawna Markova.  I found a copy at our local library.  When I realized I could not put it down and finished it at the speed read rate in two days, I acquired my own copy.  I am now happily highlighting, underlining and tabbing pages.  If you are not familiar with it, here is a link Amazon.

How do those impacted by a chronic diagnosis even begin to dig beneath the many layers of fear, anxiety and worry to identify what is really at the root of that dark, foreboding, shape-changing cloud that hovers on some days?  Aren't we tired enough as it is???For me, those emotions certainly seem an appropriate response on days when the cloud of fear and uncertainty seems to have taken residence squarely above my head.  The Bible tells us repeatedly not to worry, not to be afraid, and not to be anxious.  Repeatedly.  It becomes a bit hard to ignore.  God knows how much energy (and useless energy at that!) is expended in leaving the present moment to journey down some long, dark road to an assumed end point over which we have little, if any, control.  

Early in this book Dawna talks about her experience with cancer, and how friends and medical professionals encouraged her to take up the battle and fight alongside them to beat this disease.  Dawna came to realize she was not wired that way and did much better with an attitude of befriending the cancer and all of its emotions.  Not having had to walk that particular path, I can't say that I could make the same choice.  The battle metaphor seems the most logical avenue in some cases.  But, in my own experience, I can say that her comment sparked something in me that I needed to reconsider.  To stay with what is hard  until it softens, to stay with what is narrow until it expands - "to stay with" seems a way to welcome in the emotions as part of my reality.  It takes intentional effort, a willingness to sit in the hard and narrow space, and an earnest desire to discover a new way to respond to the dance I engage in when I find myself in those hard, energy-depleting places.  Some may choose to soldier on and ignore it all.  I certainly understand that and have done so myself.  I also know it does not work in the long term.  Rumi's poem The Guest House follows this same wisdom.

When I read the above excerpt, the first thing that came to me is what long distance runners tell me.  To reach the finish line with energy left to spare means you did not race your best race.  I have watched my son cross many long distance race finish lines over the years, and I am confident that he finishes having left everything he had in the race itself.  When I die, that is what I want.  It is my desire to live a fully-lived life.  I don't want to leave any experience not fully lived.  Anxiety, worry, fear, and concern for the future depletes my energy and my joy from the rich stories and experiences that await me.

My Worry Meter has calmed significantly in the past couple of years.  As I have made choices to move forward and fall upward, to surround myself with others who are making life-giving choices,  and to risk following my passion as it is lived out through AWBA and in my spiritual direction and retreat practice, I feel an attitude shift.  The cloud of worry may hover sometimes but it does not set up permanent residence.

A few months ago I began doing a 30-minute brisk walk at a nearby park.  It is part of my daily rhythm and is time for me to be quiet with God amidst the beauty of creation.  It is making a difference in my day.  A God that created and maintains such stunning images for all my senses to enjoy "just because" has to be crazy in love with me and consistently present for me.

So, if you find yourself beneath a cloud of worry, concern or anxiety today, stop and consider my perspective.  My way may not be your way.  My life circumstances are not your life circumstances.  But, I do believe way will be made when we make a deliberate choice to move forward and fall upward regardless of what life hands us in the moment.

Friday, June 28, 2013

An Unexpected Diagnosis

Recently one of our board members passed along this article from the publication, "Sojourners."  It is one man's story with his unexpected medical diagnosis and his journey toward trusting God more deeply through that process.  You can read it here, Losing Control.

The writer shares,

My friend Richard Rohr, who also had a bout with cancer, told me 
that “these things change our relationship to God.” 

That is so true, isn't it?  It is not unusual for someone to deny to themselves and others that they sense a changing relationship with God out of fear that they are losing their faith, especially in times of crisis.  That fear is often shared confidentially with me in some form - almost as a secret that must remain underground.   But, just as we are changing and growing through all the circumstances of our life, it makes sense that how we relate to God will change as we adjust to a new normal.  

I always find personal stories like this to be helpful in some regard.  Sometimes the person's circumstances are very near to mine and I latch onto every nugget of wisdom I can find.  Other times I am simply grateful to learn how one individual regains their sense of trust and deepened faith when the unexpected happens.  Although the lesson may not match my current circumstances in that moment, it is very likely it will become relevant at some point in the future.  It all belongs.

As space permits, we always welcome the opportunity to pass along a helpful article, website, blog, etc. that our readers think could benefit anyone living with a chronic diagnosis and/or those who support someone in their journey.  Email me at director@myawba.org if you find your own gem to share.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Gift of Blessing

Maxine Shonk is a colleague of mine in Central Ohio.  She has been affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of Peace for 48 years.  Maxine has written two books of blessings, Blessing Upon Blessing and Silver Linings, Blessings for Shadow Times.  I frequently utilize Maxine’s blessings with spiritual directees, for retreat experiences, and in small groups.  AWBA's upcoming retreat "Carrying the Soul of Summer" offers one of Maxine's blessings in each week's material.  Her blessings are so relevant for those impacted by a chronic diagnosis.  To learn more about these books or to order a copy (they make great gifts as well!) visit blessing books.  I know you will enjoy hearing her story.

Could you share a little bit about yourself as a Dominican Sister and how you have chosen to live out your vocation in ministry to others?
I am a Dominican Sister of Peace and am a native of Lancaster Ohio.  As a Dominican my experiences include teaching or administration in elementary, secondary and under graduate education.  For the last twenty four years I have ministered in spirituality as spiritual director, retreat facilitator, presenter, and preacher in adult faith formation.  My ministry in education has led me to many schools in Ohio, including Ohio Dominican University, and to New Haven in Connecticut as high school teacher/administrator.  My ministry in spirituality and theology took me into parish ministry in Columbus, into the position of administrator in the early founding days of the Spirituality Network, and off to Great Bend Kansas for work with a spirituality team at a retreat center there.  Retreat ministry in the ecumenical community, has taken me into many churches and faith communities in central Ohio, and into a life altering experience of an eight week fact finding mission to four countries in East Africa.  Among the many venues in which I have served I have a particular passion for my involvement with women’s groups and with my work with women who are marginalized in the Columbus area. It is in the context of all these experiences that, over the years, I began to write blessings both as a way to express what I knew as blessing in my ministry and as an instrument with which others could bless one another.  These blessings have found their way into the two books referenced above.

Would you speak briefly to the purpose of “blessing” and how it can be a vital part of our spiritual journey?  
Blessing has always been a very important theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  At the very beginning God created all that is, created each of us, and blessed it.  And God never stops blessing us throughout our lives.  It is ours to remember and recall God’s presence and blessing if we are to know its role in our lives.  I think we have to be on the lookout for God’s blessing even in the hardest of times for it is there.  But if we are not looking we will miss it. I think that when we bless one another we are reminding one another to look for God, to watch God working in our lives.  As a child  I was taught this lesson but didn’t really learn it until I was in my forties.  I grew up in a family of 14 children and we lived in a very small house which my father was always trying to make bigger.  He was very good with his hands and was always working in the basement on some project.  He was a contemplative man so I suspect his retreats to the basement were about more than working on his projects.  Besides that is where he kept his homemade wine!  Anyway, as a child, I remember sitting on the basement steps watching him.  Very seldom were there words exchanged between us.  He did his work and I sat with my chin in my hands and watched.  As I grew into adulthood I remember looking back at those times and resenting the fact that he did not speak to me, did not engage me in conversation.  Did he even notice that I was there?!   Why couldn’t he have at least acknowledged me?!  I was angry and these were all questions I needed to ask and to process.  But finally in my forties when someone asked me what my image of God was, I said without thinking,   “God is the one to watch working in your life.”  And I knew then I had been blessed by the experience.  So perhaps the purpose of blessing is to point out to us or to highlight what is already there and how God is present to it.  The best definition of blessing that I have heard is that to bless is to “make holy”, to “make sacred”.  The biblical notion of blessing also always involves being blessed and blessing in turn. It is a scriptural principle that those who freely receive should also freely give (Mt 10:37)  So as we are made holy (blessed) by our experiences (always … in time) so we are asked to bless each other and make holy all those we meet.

I know you have received stories from others about how people have been impacted through these blessings.  Can you share a few of those stories?
I have found that the most effective way to use these blessings is to have them bestowed upon you;  to hear the blessing from another’s lips.  I have done this in countless circles at the end of retreats where each one chooses a blessing and blesses the one next to them aloud.  In one such circle, a retreat for a parish team who knew each other well, a husband and wife were standing next to each other.  He had just announced to the group that his cancer had returned and he would be undergoing a second round of chemo and would not be able to work with them for a while.  His wife then blessed him with the blessing she had drawn:   May the God of Courage be with you, helping your to embrace the darkness and pain of the journey, calling you to stand in love with those who suffer.  May this God carve her faithful love into your heart.  May your inner self be transformed so that you can see more clearly our own journey as one of peace, hope, and solidarity. 

The Sisters with whom I worked in Kansas ran a hospital nearby.  They took the blessings and hung them one by one on a “tree” in the lobby.  Visitors and patients alike  began to bless one another and even took them home to bless children and parents.  One rural retreat center put the blessings in their free standing mailbox where travelers and visitors would stop and choose their blessing.  They watched each day as a neighboring farmer working in his field would drive his tractor up to the mailbox, dismount, choose his blessing and drive off again.  Home visitors prepare baskets of blessings to take to their shut-in patients so that they may be blessed daily.  I am constantly and consistently amazed by the way these blessings have graced people’s lives.  It is as if they have a life of their own and the Spirit has taken charge of them in a way I could never have predicted or controlled! 

As you know, AWBA’s ministry has as its primary focus to provide support and encouragement to those who live with chronic disease and their caregivers.  How would those we serve be impacted by a book of blessings?  How are the topics relevant to being impacted by a chronic disease?   
I think that one of the most difficult and most rewarding things we can do for ourselves is to be able to take a step back from our close-up perspective, and to see ourselves as God sees us … broken AND blessed.  God is a both/and God in an either/or world.   Even in our anger, disappointments, discouragements, etc.  God waits to bless.  Watch for God.  The blessings especially in the “Silver Linings” book are one small effort at putting words to the watching and the waiting.  Sometimes a short blessing is all one is capable of absorbing  or hearing at one time.  Somehow they are a way of praying when you are not able.  As St. Paul says, “When we cannot pray as we ought, the Spirit prays in us”.  

From your own life experiences and in ministry to others, in what ways do you experience the life-giving presence of God in the challenges associated with a chronic diagnosis and in caring (personally and/or professionally) by those living with a chronic disease?  
My nephew, Ben, lives with ALS… since 2007.   He is in his mid 30’s and has two small children (4 and 6).  He is a graduate of Notre Dame in English and taught in the English Dept. of Fisher Catholic High School.  At this point in time he cannot eat, speak, move or even breathe without a ventilator.  And yet I experience the life-giving presence of God in who he is.  …  because  God has been present in him and his wife, Sarah, in his mother/my sister Jane, and in all the friends and relatives … who have never let Ben forget who he is!  … Ben communicates through a computer, using his eyes to put the words in the computer’s mouth … a slow and tedious process.  Yet his brother and sisters continue to joke with him.  He was best man at his brother’s wedding. His children “romp” with him by climbing all over his wheelchair.  His wife consults him in everything and they even have their occasional arguments.  The doctors said he would live 3-5 years.  He is now enjoying his sixth year with ALS.  His uncles come and exercise him and his brother and sister-in-law take them on vacation with them.  I’m sure they all have their moments.  But, none of them have forgotten who he is and in the process are learning who they are.  Ben has been blessed (made holy) by who they are.  And each of them (and I) have grown and been blessed (made holy) in return by who he is.  God waits with blessing for all of us and waits for us to bless in turn.  

What final thoughts or bits of wisdom would you like to share with our readers?

I am grateful for Maxine taking time to share her story with our readers.  I encourage you to consider at least one of these books for yourself or someone you love.  The are a tremendous resource and an even better gift.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Have a Heart - How Creativity Can Heal the Soul

A colleague of mine, Rebecca, is an artist.  This October it will be five years since Rebecca's husband received a brand new heart.  I understand from her that the five year mark in the transplant world is cause for celebration.  Rebecca has just started a new series on her blog (Voyage of Discovery) called "Have a Heart" in which she will create all kinds of hearts.  Where it will lead ultimately ... well, it seems she will just continue her journey to see what unfolds with each step.  The link to her first post in this series can be found here.   It seems she is off to a terrific beginning already.  If you are a caregiver or one with chronic disease, I invite you to experiment with expressing the inexpressible through some form of creativity.  It might be doodling, coloring, taking pictures, collage, writing a poem (no rhyming necessary!), planting a small garden, cooking a special meal, watercolor, knitting ...  The list is endless.  Perhaps Rebecca's early "heart" attempts will inspire you as well.  Rebecca's blog has been added to our blog For Your Creative Spirit resource list for future reference.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Gift of Contemplative Photography

I am so excited to have Christine Valters Painter with us today as a guest blogger.  I “met” Christine virtually about three or four years ago when I found her wonderful website Abbey of the Arts through which I have benefitted from many of her online offerings.  Christine weaves faith and creative expression together in a relevant and profound way.  Her wisdom and support have played a huge role in the development of AWBA.  I was graced to meet her in person when I attended a week-long retreat for spiritual directors, “Awakening the Creative Spirit.”  She and dancer/author, Betsey Beckman gifted myself and about 10 other men and women with an intense and delightful week of creative and spiritual exploration on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Creative spirits were definitely unleashed!  In fact, this is where board member, Michael Landon, and I met.  Boundaries were stretched, transformed life was offered, and a new vision appeared for me.  When I attended this retreat, I was grieving the losses necessary to make space to commit to the development of AWBA.  I  was in serious need of grace-filled encouragement from kindred spirits also seeking to become more than they ever thought possible.  My cup overflowed that week.

So, I was grateful for the opportunity for AWBA to be a stop on Christine’s Virtual Tour for her new book, Eyes of the Heart - Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.   We have a free copy of Christine's book to give away so check at the bottom of this post to learn how to register for this drawing.

Michael Landon offered to do a virtual interview with Christine, whose life adventure has her currently living in Galway, Ireland.  Carve out a few minutes in your day, take a deep and restful breath, and listen in on their conversation ...

Some of our readers may not be familiar with your work as an author, spiritual director, retreat leader and online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts; could you share a little about yourself and the many aspects of your ministry?
Abbey of the Arts is a virtual monastery dedicated to integrating contemplative practice and creative expression.  It has become a global community of monks and artists.  My work includes offering both live and online retreats, writing books and articles, as well as regular love notes through my newsletter to the community, and through these various avenues I offer spiritual guidance for those who come to be nourished. 

What led you to first begin offering online retreats using photography which has culminated in your most recent book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice?
I had been writing for my blog for several years already, exploring the creative and contemplative paths through reflections and photography, in addition to offering live retreats in various locations.  The internet was becoming, more and more, a place for connecting with others across space and the availability of educational resources was growing.  I offered my first course as an experiment and was blown away by the response.  The class filled quickly and I had to add a second and then a third session.  It was so exciting to both make the class more affordable for people in this format, and accessible to people all over the world, so that we had participants from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand gathering together.

Photography had been a contemplative practice of mine for a long time, as a way of slowing down and seeing the world on another level.  Online seemed to be a great vehicle for sharing photos with one another, from wherever participants were located.  I also love the asynchronous nature of online courses.  I set up discussions so that people can log on and participate at any time, which offers a more organic experience and people can follow their own rhythms for engagement, when it works for their own schedules.

How do you see photography and other expressive arts connecting with the spiritual journey?
The arts are a form of meditation.  When we engage in art-making with this intention, we bring our awareness present to the thoughts that stream through our minds as we create.  We might become aware of a continual voice of criticism or judgment, or a voice that undermines the value of what we are doing.  We each have our own version of this barrage of thoughts, but we don’t often make time to notice them.  This is the first step.  

The second step is to breathe deeply, to return again and again to what we are engaged with.  The art materials – whether the camera, paint, clay, or fabric – become a kind of anchor for our minds.  We start to discover our capacity to lose ourselves in the moment, times when those continual commentaries in our minds lift briefly and offer us a respite and experience of true peace and stillness. 

Many of our readers may have some experience with Lectio Divina (holy reading), but in your book you introduce a unique adaptation that you name Visio Divina; could you share some of the similarities and differences between the two?
Lectio divina is an ancient contemplative practice and way of reading sacred texts slowly and spaciously, so that the gift of a word might be received in prayer.  This word is something that is calling to you in this particular moment of your life right now.  

Visio divina functions very similarly; it invites us to see images as sacred texts which also offer the gift of a word.  For those who are more visual, visio divina may feel like more of a natural fit. For those who aren’t visually inclined, it may feel more challenging.  But there is value in developing all of our senses in this way.

As you know, AWBA’s ministry has at its primary focus to give support and encouragement to those who live with chronic disease and their caregivers; what messages of hope, strength and new life might this special population glean from Eyes of the Heart?
The beauty of photography is that anyone can receive photos.  All it takes is the simplest of cameras and a commitment to practice in this contemplative way, so that the ordinary becomes luminous.  The central principle of this way of seeing the world is to discover the holy amidst daily life.  For those for whom travel may not be possible, photography can open up a window to the revelations being offered in each moment.

In what ways do you experience the presence of God in illness, suffering, pain and grief?  What becomes life-giving to you in the midst of such challenges and heartache?
I have a chronic illness myself and experienced great loss through deaths of loved ones.  I have found profound comfort in the wisdom of the desert monks and the way of unknowing during these times.  To come to recognize that sometimes God is present precisely in the experience of absence, and that this experience has a way of forcing me to release my idols and expectations about how God works, is profoundly freeing. 

This is never to imply that God causes the suffering to teach us something.  Instead, I believe it is the condition of human life that we will suffer, and this process of stripping away can have an incredible grace to it when we stay with our experience and stop trying to run away from the pain.  We have to learn to stay with ourselves and welcome in the grief rather than resist it, embrace the anger we may feel, rather than reject it.  It is in the resistance that we often create more suffering for ourselves. We must breathe in the full spectrum of our human experience. 

What final thoughts or bits of wisdom would you like to share with our readers?
Meditation is a vital way to notice the stories I start to tell myself when I am experiencing pain which only serve to create more suffering.  Cultivating the ability to become fully present to the moment helps to lift us from what feels stuck and hard. We can learn to notice the very ordinary ways that grace breaks through in a given day and feel a sense of gratitude for these moments. 

Photography is a tool to help us practice this.  Through the lens we can learn to receive the gift of a moment when the light is shimmering in a particular way, or the beauty of steam rising from our morning cup of coffee.  Or we might express a difficult aspect of our lives through image and this gives us a way to express the pain, to witness to it, and offer ourselves a little more freedom.


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.


A heart-felt thanks to Christine for her time and her invitation to visit with AWBA’s readers.  We are also grateful to you, our readers, who let us know you are out there and supporting us in so many ways.  We have a copy of Christine’s book to raffle and invite you to email us at director@myawba.org by June 14 to be included in a drawing for her book.  Simply include your full name and indicate you would like to participate in the book drawing.

What do we mean by "spiritual care"?

AWBA exists to provide spiritual care to those living with a chronic diagnosis and the people who support them.   I am often asked what we mean by “spiritual care.”  The thought of trying to respond in writing rather than in face-to-face dialogue is a bit daunting.  However, I suspect some of you wonder and don’t ask the question, so I hope to clear up assumptions or misunderstanding while not creating new questions.  Let’s see how I do ...

AWBA respects those impacted by a chronic diagnosis

~ who are seekers either unsure of what they believe and open to dialogue, or certain of what they believe and open to expanding their existing beliefs;
~ who thought they knew what they believed until their worst nightmare became reality and find themselves questioning what they used to hold as truth;
~ who know what they believe and have had their beliefs strengthened through the struggle; and
~ who are too weary to even ask the questions, and seek a place to be still until the time comes to know the questions to be asked.

We are each a physical and spiritual being.  Our physical selves are the piece diagnosed with all sorts of medical scenarios, and it is our physical self that carries the full reality of living with that diagnosis.   If you are the one diagnosed, you are poked, prodded, scanned, biopsied, and monitored by medical professionals.  You have your health insurance company and a long list of specialists on speed dial.  You do all of this while trying to maintain some semblance of daily life routine in the midst of shifting sands.  If you are a spouse, family member or friend providing support, you witness all of this for a loved one.  You do what you can to relieve a bit of the load (sometimes living far away) while often feeling  inadequate, exhausted from the effort, and guilty asking for help for yourself.  If you are a professional caregiver, you intersect these stories at a place where you have been trained and equipped.  Since you are being paid for that effort, shouldn’t you keep your weariness to yourself and push through?  Sometimes you can do that without losing the compassion that brought you to the field in the first place.  And sometimes, regretfully, you make a career change not knowing what else to do at the end of caregiving career burn out.

Our spiritual selves are the other piece of the life picture.  It is the piece that tries to make sense of the struggle, wonder about the unanswerable “why", find a life balance and support system to help all the moving parts remain in sync, and identify someone or something beyond your human self to provide comfort, support and wisdom when the darkness threatens to overwhelm during the more difficult times.  Internationally known psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl endured three years of horror in Nazi death camps and survived to share his wisdom in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  He writes, 

The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.

How we respond to what life does to us seems to be an attitude of spirit rather than a physical choice.  This is the place AWBA desires to touch within the small and large challenges of those impacted by a chronic diagnosis.   We seek to provide a safe and supportive community that invites your spirit to grow beyond the seeming limitations of a particular diagnosis, whatever your role may be in that journey.  AWBA’s online retreats and in-person workshops are offered as places of hope, authenticity, and confidential support.  Although some programs focus on the specific challenges of living with a chronic condition, many do not dwell in that place.  It is our intent to provide experiences that leave ample room for joy, community, and a strong sense of tomorrow.

Spiritual care provided through AWBA does not include advice on prayer forms from any one belief system nor do we judge any doctrine or spiritual practice as “right” or “wrong.”    We leave the “how” to your discernment in conversation with those you trust.   AWBA seeks to simply provide a sanctuary where a weary spirit may come for rest and renewal alongside others of a like heart, body, mind and spirit.

We are grateful for the lessons we learn every day from those walking this journey.  You are our teachers.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Power of Presence

In our heart-felt desire as human beings to fix things, remove obstacles, and generally smooth the path for others, we sometimes neglect and/or underestimate the healing power of simple presence with another who is struggling.  The act appears simple on the outside.  But,  those who offer this gift of presence to another understand that it takes quite a bit of intentionality, patience, flexibility, active listening, other-centeredness and, oftentimes, personal discomfort as we bear witness to the hardship of another.   Sometimes what we think others need in a situation completely misses the mark.  If we are lucky, we will be told what is helpful and what is not.  Most of the time, however, the individual seeking support may not know what they need and may simply be too tired to try to articulate it to another.  People want to be kind and grateful for whatever support is given that they may say nothing out of fear that the support will be taken away.   It is a vicious cycle.  Can you connect with that experience from either perspective? 

One person did.  Below is a piece of wisdom written from the perspective of one living with Alzheimer's to those who are caregivers.  A friend shared this with me and you can see a video at An Alzheimer's Request.  This is an informative website for those impacted by Alzheimer's.  Do you know of a website or writing that would be helpful to others?  Email me and we will share your information as space allows.  On behalf of AWBA to those we serve, we thank you for giving us a place in your support network to be a listening presence.

An Alzheimer's Request

Do not ask me to remember.
Don't try to make me understand.
Let me rest and know you're with me.
Kiss my cheek and hold my hand.
I'm confused beyond your concept.
I am sad and sick and lost.
All I know is that I need you
To be with me at all costs.
Please do not lose your patience with me.
Do not scold me or curse or cry.
I can't help the way I'm acting.
I can't be different though I try.
Just remember that I need you
And that the best of me is gone.
Please don't fail to stand beside me
And love me till my life is done.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A New Tab

If you look at the top of this blog you will now see a tab for "home" where these discussions will continue to appear and a new tab "For Your Creative Spirit."  Some of you know about my passion for utilizing expressive art as a form of prayer and healing for myself and others.  This tab offers a couple of websites and blogs for those of you who may be kindred spirits in that regard or just curious.  I have shared some of these with you in past blog posts and thought it might be helpful to have them in a place where they can be permanent.  Enjoy!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Morning With SoulCollage - A Fund Raiser

Nineteen women gathered on Saturday, March 9 to learn about SoulCollage and to create cards that captured a piece of each woman's story.  Trained SoulCollageFacilitator MJ Abell provided a safe and creative space with plenty of materials for everyone,  the Worthington Hills Country Club provided wonderful hospitality and a delicious lunch, and God provided outstanding weather.  

All expenses associated with this event were donated and we are so grateful.  This generosity enabled all participant fees to go directly to the programs provided to clients served through Always We Begin Again to maintain our virtual home on the Web and reduced rates for AWBA programs.  Enjoy our photo album of the day. 

Some of the images ready for picking.

Some of us created together and 

took the space we needed.

Some found their own corner tucked away
and began cutting and pasting.

Here are just a few of the SoulCollage cards we created,  


It was a great day and we hope you are inspired to create your own Soul Story in response to one of these cards.