Are you where you want to be?


Musings: Our Mortality

Yet another friend has returned to the great eternity.  Just over a year ago I dealt with the passing of five people who were close to me, some more than others.  Four of them died within a seven-week span, and the fifth, my dear church sister Susan, just two months after that.  At the time I remember feeling a sense of dis-ease, and although I have many spiritual tools and good friends to help me deal with this kind of thing, I was aware of “descending into greyness” and came to the conclusion that I was in a mild depression, which is not abnormal or alarming given the circumstances.

Last Thanksgiving, as Rich and I spent our now traditional week down in Orlando, I was on the computer and needed to make a rare (for me) foray into Facebook.  While there I found an entry by Rosa, the daughter of a dear old friend, Santiago.  Santiago was an engineer who I came to know very well, along with his wife Josefina, when I lived on the island of La Maddalena in Sardinia, Italy in the 70’s.  But more than an engineer, Santiago was an artist.  He painted using many mediums, he created exquisite mosaics, and he was a talented guitar player and writer.  Santiago was also my unofficial mentor, and he re-awoke my dormant Muse and I began writing and painting again.

Rosa’s posting was a photo of Josefina, and the caption read: “Here’s Mummy putting roses on Pappy’s tomb for his birthday.”  My hands froze over the computer keyboard as the significance of those words sank in.  I contacted Rosa immediately and she confirmed the sad news that Santiago had had a very serious stroke from which he had never recovered, and that he had passed last April.  Once the initial feelings of deep grief subsided, I was able to feel so grateful for his presence in my life and also for the fact that just two years ago my husband had gifted me with a week-long trip to Puerto Rico so that I could visit Santiago and Josefina and spend some wonderful time with them after about twenty five years of absence.

On our way home from that stay in Orlando, Rich and I stopped to visit with old friends from our time in Italy.  PA had been Richard’s Department Head on his first ship, U.S.S. Belknap (since decommissioned) in Gaeta, Italy in the mid-80’s, and then in the 90’s he had been his CO on another tour in Naples, Italy.  PA retired in the early 2000’s and on New Year’s Day 2006 he had a massive brain aneurism which robbed him of motor coordination and most speech.  He and Deb, his devoted wife, returned to live in DeBary, FL in 2007.  PA was wheelchair bound and had very little communication capability but when we visited them, which coincided with our Orlando trips each year, we could see that PA was “still there”.  Recognition and interest would flare in his eyes and we somehow knew that he appreciated our visit.

During the evening of 3 January 2013, we heard from Deb that PA was not long for this world and, in fact, he died in the early hours of the next day.  Yesterday we attended his funeral Mass and my husband was asked to speak about PA on behalf of the family.  As I heard Rich’s words of appreciation for this man, I was also drawn to my own place of gratitude – gratitude not only for PA and all he represented both as a a Naval officer and as a family man, and for the opportunity we had to know the whole family and be enriched by their presence in our lives, but also for life in general, the precious gift that it is, and for friendship and the gift that that is. I was also grateful that God had given us the opportunity to be present and supportive to our friends at their time of loss and deep personal grief.

As I remembered our last visit with Deb and PA, I then thought about the passing of my beloved soul-sister Cawne the week following Thanksgiving.  I will be writing a separated posting about Cawne because of the important place she held in my heart and in my life.  All that I will say here is that she was one of three people near and dear to me that I have lost recently all in the space of seven weeks.  That makes a grand total of eight losses in just over fourteen months.  I cannot help but wonder what is the “message” or the lesson behind all that loss, and I have been resting in the Creator’s loving arms about that.

There are three themes that have surfaced.  The first is that I have been prepared to carry this weight and, in dealing with my own grief, I have been able to support many people as they have journeyed through their grief. The second is related to my preparation as a spiritual director.  I firmly believe that I am being groomed to help others as they deal with their grief, to be a spiritual companion in this particular stage of peoples’ lives.  And the third is that I believe Creator is also teaching me about and gently bringing me closer to full acceptance of my own mortality.

And so as I close this blog I am also acutely aware that I want to write another blog dedicated to this particular topic.  So many people, in the Western world are scared to think about death and dying and live in a state of complete fear and denial of death, especially their own or that of their loved ones.  And yet death is the one thing that we are guaranteed to have to face in life.  Because of personal denial of the possibility of death and the general culture surrounding death in the Western world, many people are completely unprepared for the moment. Without being morbid,  I want to write about the subject so that whoever reads about it can choose to be somewhat prepared.

The Art of Listening

I have mentioned in several posts recently that I am enrolled into a program called Audire.  This is a three year program which will give me certification as a spiritual director.  In the context of the Audire program, spiritual direction is intended as a “being a companion” to someone as they explore where they are at in their relationship to whatever God they believe in.  Or, if the person does not yet believe in God, walking with them as they explore what this may mean for them and allow them a safe place to explore the possibility of a spiritual life.

One of the skills that is considered to be of prime importance in this training is the art of listening.  As I worked and trained with the CREDO retreat process in the US Navy between the years of 1984 to 2003, the skill of listening was also considered to be the most important skill that we needed to cultivate. Most of the yearly training weekends that I spent with CREDO were focused on activities that helped us to hone this particular skill.

On my refrigerator door at home I have a quotation held in place with a magnet that says something like: “The greatest gift we can offer another is the gift of rapt attention.”  I’m away from home right now so cannot verify the exact wording nor do I remember the author of the quotation.  Just a few days ago, in one of my morning reflections, I read the following quotation by Dr. Joyce Brothers: “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.”

Going back to the first quotation, I checked out the dictionary meaning of the word “rapt”.  This is what I found:

– completely engrossed: involved in, fascinated by, or concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else.

– deeply engrossed or absorbed

– blissfully happy: showing or suggesting deep emotions

– transported with emotion

I think the first two definitions are probably the most significant with regards the skill of listening to another, although showing that I am “blissfully happy” or “transported with emotion” as I listen to another in a totally focused way is not so bad either!  It would certainly get across the message to them that I am paying complete attention to them and what they are saying.

Listening is just one component of the whole skill of good communication.  It is said that when we are communicating with another person several messages are being given and received:

– the message of the words that we are actually saying

– the message that we think we are conveying with the words that we are saying

– the message that the other person hears from the words that we are saying

– the message that the other person then “decodes” from the words that we are saying

– the message that the other person sends back to us in response to the words we are saying

– the message that the other person thinks he has conveyed with the words he has said

– the message that we hear in the words from the other person

– the message that we think we understood (decoded) from the words the other person said.

There may be a few more variables going on at the time which could depend on the parties’ humor, body language, level of distraction, and others!!  Is it any wonder that “bad communication” is probably the single most contributing factor to broken relations on the intimate level and wars on the international level?

So, in order to be a “good” listener I need to come to the table in a very specific way in order to offer that “rapt attention” to the other person.  Here are some of the tools that I have learned, and continue to hear impressed, in order to be a good listener.

– Look directly at the speaker

– make sure body posture is open and inviting

– clear the mind of other thoughts

– avoid external distractions

– suspend internal judgment

– don’t be mentally preparing a response

– acknowledge that you are hearing by nodding the head or saying “uh huh” from time to time

When the other person stops speaking:

– wait for a few moments and then check with them that they have said all they wanted/needed to say for the moment

– if you are confused about something they said, ask for clarification

– reflect back, summarize what they have said to show them that you have truly been listening

– only then offer honest feedback, being respectful of the other and stating clearly that these are your thoughts and/or feelings in response to what you have

As can be seen,  it is not easy to be a “rapt listener” but with a little thought and some willingness to get out of self, we can become the skillful listener that is needed in true communication with another.

Vignette: Mother-Son Love


Today we celebrated yet another funeral in my parish.  I use the word celebrate because in the Catholic faith we chose to say a Mass of the Resurrection in celebration of the deceased being resurrected into new life with Christ.

I am a member of the Ministry of Consolation and so I find myself attending more funerals than the average person.  As part of our ministry we prepare the church for viewing services and vigils which usually take place the day before the funeral Mass, and then for the Mass itself.  We are on hand to greet family and friends of the deceased as they come to the services and to be of any assistance to them or the priest.

As I stood in the church narthex this morning greeting everyone, I noticed a mother and her son come in to join those already present.  The young man carried himself with great care and dignity.  He wore a uniform of sorts, some kind of cadet perhaps.   His posture was perfect, and even though he walked with a slight limp, he carried himself “tall”.  I found out later his name was Teddy. 

In all the time they were in the narthex before Mass started he stood quietly by his mother’s side.  Every once in a while they would look at each other and smile.  I could not help but notice that it was more than just a smile.  It was a communication.  In that one act they seemed to speak volumes to each other.

Close by them stood another couple with a small girl of about three years old in a stroller.  Teddy noticed the girl and stood staring at her as though mesmerized.  After some moments, his mother touched him gently on the arm and he looked at her with a huge smile.  He then turned his attention back to the girl for a few more moments before turning once more, the smile still upon his face, to gaze intently, lovingly into his mother’s eyes.  Again I had the feeling of a long, silent communication between them.

It was time for Mass.  We discreetly directed everyone into the church and Mass began.  The ritual was beautiful, the songs and readings perfectly chosen for the occasion.  Then came the moment for Communion and once again Teddy and his mother took front and center stage of my attention. 

I had already received Communion and had just returned to my seat  to pray when I looked up to see them returning down the aisle.  As before, I noticed how tall and straight Teddy walked.  His mother walked beside him and, with one hand resting lightly in the center of his back, seemed to gently guide him.  But more than guiding, it appeared to be a sign of reassurance.

It seemed to me that Teddy was totally focused in the moment.  He had just received Communion and his hands were folded in front of him in a gesture of quiet reverence.  Yet as they walked together I noticed that with a slight movement of his head he seemed to keep his mother in his peripheral vision.

Once back in their pew, they knelt side by side.  It looked as though it was difficult for Teddy to kneel, perhaps something to do with that limp.  Then he slightly turned his head to his mother and waited.  I don’t know how I knew he was waiting, nor did I know what he was waiting for.  As I watched, his mother leaned in to him and brought her lips to his cheek in close proximity to his ear. 

As if on cue, Teddy inclined his head just fractionally in her direction and she began to speak to him.  In that moment I thought that perhaps she was saying some prayers for him, or perhaps suggesting some prayers that he might like to say.  No matter what, the moment was precious, just utterly precious, and I felt humbled to have been part of a very intimate act between them.

What made this Mother’s and son’s love so precious and special?  Teddy is a  Downs Syndrome child.  He is now twenty six years old.  The unconditional love that flowed so freely between them was palpable. I felt privileged to see the warm compassion that this mother showed her special child.  As I was allowed into their space and allowed to share their beautiful relationship,I felt as though I been given a priceless gift.