Experience Grace During Suffering

Suffering is a given in any life. But, for some Christians, suffering is a shock. A sign that God isn’t paying attention. Or a symptom that they are praying incorrectly. The idea that a Christian life is all prosperity and popcorn is widespread … and wrong.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Jesus, John 16:33

How can we “take heart” when pain and sorrow, fear and loss take up center stage in our lives. God is omnipotent. God can do anything. God could fix this in a second. Why does He allow our suffering?

Jesus warned us that we would have trouble on Earth, but He encourages us to remember that He has overcome the world. In fact, He says “so that in me you may have peace” in almost the same breath. So what does that mean exactly when pain, sorrow and loss are center stage in our lives? And how do we get there? I believe some answers come from Paul’s words about his pain and trouble in 2nd Corinthians 12:6-10.

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul, 2nd Corinthians 12:6-10

This statement makes perfect sense when combined with the idea of a God who consents to Satan’s request for test a person, as He did to Job (Job 1:6-22) and to Peter (Luke 22:31).

God knows that suffering develops humility, a true understanding of who we each are and who God is. Without this depth of awareness, we can’t be in a strong relationship with God. Our trials not only build faith and character; they also open our eyes to the reality of our existence

Jesus prays for us in times of temptation and suffering. For example, He told Peter that He had prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. It’s notable that Jesus did not pray that Peter would not deny Him. He knew the terrible experience was necessary for Peter and for all who later learned about it.

The phrase “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is not from the Bible. It’s from “Conan the Barbarian,” with the script slightly misquoting Nietzsche. Actually, suffering makes us weaker, which is a good thing.

Why? Because God wants people to see His presence in His Christians (and not just in Paul and Peter, either.) Suffering breaks up the vessel of our self-centeredness, our self-regard. A broken vessel displays the light of God’s presence within to others. Maintaining faith, joy and hope during a serious calamity is the best Christian witness we can ever give.

How do we do that? The good news is: It’s not up to us.

God tells us, as He told Paul: “My graces are sufficient for you.” I believe that this means that God will give us the abundant graces we need to deal with suffering without fear and anxiety, but with His peace and joy. All we need to do is be open to accept these graces.

I have found this to be true in my life. I open myself up to God in continual prayer and thanksgiving, using Christian mindfulness. God fills me up with peace and joy even in the hospital waiting room, in a locked psych ward with a loved one, at the funeral home, on the scene of the accident, in the board conference room and during the dark of the night. It’s not up to me. God is doing it for me and through me.

When we suffer and rest in God’s grace, God responds.

I will give you the secrets of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know I am the Lord, the God of Israel who summons you by name.

Isaiah 45:3

Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church, has called this experience “gritty grace.” Maybe the abrasion we feel is good for everyone.

Making Jesus Known as He Is

Every Christian life reflects on Jesus. Sometimes we can make Him look terrible. We hope that walking with Jesus in Christian mindfulness makes it easier to help people to see how wonderful He actually is.

That is not because we are wonderful. It’s because we are surrendered. When we strive to see the presence of God in the present moment, we grow closer to the Lord. That allows Him to shine in our actions and words, just a light would do through a lantern. Only God can empower us to show His spirit.

The August issue of “Give Us This Day” magazine contained writings from two believers, a century apart, who were practicing Christian mindfulness, rather they knew it or not.

Fr. Daniel P. Horan is director of the Center for Spirituality and a professor at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. He wrote a sentence that stirred my soul:

In a world that encourages us to take care of ourselves above all else, it does not make sense to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable and heal the brokenhearted as Christ did.

The choice is ours, he said. We can “shirk the Gospel by living according to the standards of worldly interests, or risk appearing foolish because we are striving to walk in the footprints of Jesus Christ.” To me, Christian mindfulness is the best way to walk in Jesus’ footprints.

Another inspiring piece of writing in the issue came from Elisabeth Leseur, who died in 1914. These were some of her resolutions:

  • To persevere steadily with my daily prayers and meditations and my communions at least weekly.
  • To increase and strengthen, by divine grace, my spiritual life.
  • In all circumstances to remain gentle, serene and full of love for those around me.
  • By my words and actions, to try to make Jesus Christ known and loved.
  • To ask that He work through me for the good of those for whom I can be the instrument of Providence.
  • To work first for God and then for my neighbor each day.
  • To speak to each one in the language they can understand.

These resolutions are mine as well, although I fail far more often than I succeed. If we all tried to live in the presence of Jesus in the present moment, we might make his nature more obvious to a skeptical world.

Stop Struggling

Are you trying too hard to be at peace? Fighting hard to practice mindfulness?

Stop struggling.

Calm down.

I feel I am striving too hard to abide in Jesus. Instead of opening the door for Him to enter, I am pounding on the other side of the door … straining to keep pure thoughts and to practice my daily round of spiritual practices. That isn’t necessary, productive or even helpful.

God is already here. Yet I behave as if it all depends on me. Yes, I need to quiet down and let God be present. I am grasping for someone who is all around me, yet my grasp comes up empty. It is only when I relax and submit that I feel God doing the work to allow me to abide in Him.

Is it just me? When I mentioned this in a gathering of Christian friends, I got a lot of blank looks.

Yet, one Christian friend responded with a new phrase I love: Try softer.

That’s the title of a book by therapist Aundi Kolber. She believes we don’t have to white-knuckle our way to God or to life, in general. Her book is a corrective for overfunctioning (one of my greatest issues) and anxiety.

Perhaps I have reached the “let God and let God” phase of my spiritual development. Yet again.

I found some tips on the Woman of Noble Character website that can make this effort to stop the struggle more concrete.

It’s not what I need to stop doing as much as it’s what I need to let God do. Stop struggling to achieve grace and:

  1. Look for a show of God’s power.
  2. Accept God’s comfort.
  3. Let God work things out for the good of those who love Him, including me.

Yes, I need to practice my daily round of spiritual practices. But I need to move forward in a more gentle, open manner, trusting God to do his part. Without God, I can do nothing.

a passageway in a beautiful stone monastery

Prayerfulness as Christian Mindfulness

Christian mindfulness is a relatively new term for an ancient practice. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, writes about it in “The Breath of the Soul.” She calls the practice “prayerfulness.”

Prayerfulness, on the other hand, is the capacity to walk in touch with God through everything in life. It is the internal awareness that God is with me — now, here, in this, always. It is an awareness of the continuing presence of God.

Sr. Joan Chittister, “The Breath of the Soul”

That definition absolutely aligns with mine for Christian mindfulness: living in the present moment with the presence of God.

Sr. Joan has been a huge influence on me since 1990, when I read “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.” At the time she wrote that book, she was prioress at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania. Now she is known internationally as an important spiritual writer, with dozens of books to her credit.

So I am not surprised that we arrived on the same path with different terminology.

Sr. Joan writes that prayerfulness is her inner dialogue with the living God who inhabits her spirit and mind. Not only does prayerfulness allow us to see and talk with God everywhere, it lets us to submit the present moment, with all its uncertainty and anxiety, to God.

As Sr. Joan puts it, “It trusts that no matter how malevolent the situation may be, I can walk through it unharmed because God is with me.”

Sr. Joan shares her spiritual practices through her website here. You can subscribe to her monthly newsletter, “The Monastic Way,” on the site. You also get free webinars and Zoom calls with Sr. Joan and her group, an online movement called Monasteries of the Heart.

cloud's with light streaming through like the voice of God

Develop a Conversational Relationship With God

“Developing a conversational relationship with God” is the subtitle of Dallas Willard’s book “Hearing God.” Some believe that God stopped speaking when the Bible was organized. Willard (and I) think nothing could be further from the truth.

Hearing God’s voice fits into the larger context of walking in a close friendship with him. In fact, Willard believes that God speaks mostly to people who obey His teachings and want to do His will.

As Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” Abiding in Jesus minute by minute through Christian mindfulness puts us in a position to hear God specifying His will. We become as Willard wrote “someone who leads the kind of life demonstrated in the Bible: a life of personal, intelligent interaction with God.”

Feasting on God’s word

The Bible fixes the boundaries of everything that God will say to humankind, Willard writes. Indeed, God speaks most often during Bible reading and study. Have you ever had a verse jump off the page to you, even though you’ve read it many times? That is God speaking.

But this can also happen while listening to another person, whether it be a sermon or a conversation. I also believe that synchronicity can point the way to a message. If you hear the same verse repeatedly … in Bible study, in a sermon and in a book you’re reading … it may be God emphasizing something to you.

God also speaks through dreams, visions and events. But most of the time he speaks through a small, still voice that can only be heard in quiet. God’s voice comes in a spirit of peace, joy and good will. So God’s voice sounds like Jesus. And we can only know what Jesus sounds like through Bible study.

Seven steps toward hearing God

This summary may help you as you seek to hear God’s voice.

  1. Begin with a prayer in Jesus’ name for protection from evil influences.
  2. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you to listen well.
  3. Remain alert.
  4. Reject anything that is contrary to Biblical truth.
  5. Feel welcome to write down the thoughts that come for further study.
  6. Understand that real communications from God are:
    • Biblically sound
    • Glorify God
    • Advance the kingdom
    • Help people
    • Help you to grow spiritually
  7. Thank God for the time together.

Walking with God in Christian mindfulness is a sweet time of communion. We should expect that God will help us learn what we should know and what we should do.

No More Mean Mondays

You are not imagining it. People are meaner on Mondays.

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people display less civility and kindness on Mondays than they do the rest of the week. But the study does contain some good news for those of us who practice any form of mindfulness.

Mindfulness stabilizes this situation. People who practice it are able to maintain a stable level of kindness and courteous behavior across the week.

This is no surprise to me. My form of mindfulness … Christian mindfulness … gives you a solid foundation and handrails to walk across difficult days. It’s a stabilizing force for the kind of inner peace that only comes through a relationship with Jesus.

Staying in the present moment in the presence of God brings a continual source of strength. You learn, as many do, that the only thing you can control is yourself. Christian mindfulness actually gives you the graces necessary to be able to do that in a kind way on a fairly consistent basis.

Create Your Rule of Life

The first back-to-school pictures arrived in my texts today. Pumpkins and autumn foliage line the shelves of craft stores. The pandemic has taken a turn for the worse. At least I held onto my masks made with “fall leaves” fabric. So it’s a good time to create or update your rule of life.

Schedules change. Every year we discover new resources that help us to grow closer to God. So updating a rule of life is an annual practice for me.

For those of you who have not created one, it’s a schedule, more or less, of things you will do on a regular basis to practice the presence of God in the present moment. “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero contains a chapter on creating a rule. His categories are:

  • Prayer
    • Scripture
    • Silence and Solitude
    • Daily Office
    • Study
  • Rest
    • Sabbath
    • Simplicity
    • Play and Recreation
  • Work and Activity
    • Service and Mission
    • Care for the Physical Body
  • Relationships
    • Emotional Health
    • Family
    • Community

Under this format, you go through each category to make rules about what you will and will not do.

Sample Rule of Life (It’s Mine)

My rule of life is more of a schedule. Each year, I do go through it to evaluate the helpfulness of each element and update the materials I am using. Here’s a peek:

Daily

  • Early morning: 20-30 minutes of centering prayer, read through New Testament annually, read a chapter of the Old Testament in chronological order, pray over to-do list, journal
  • 10 a.m.: Read one of Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling book series
  • Noon: Work listening to Pray as You Go OR do Liturgy of the Hours Office of the Readings OR read morning prayer in “Give Us This Day” magazine
  • 3 p.m.: Lectio 365 app
  • 5:30 p.m.: Evening prayer in “Give Us This Day” magazine.
  • Nighttime: Gratitude list, examen or night prayer in one of these apps: Pray as You Go, Lectio 365, Hallow, Pause or Abide.

Weekly

Sabbath on Sunday: nature walk, spiritual reading

Monthly

3rd Sunday: spend an hour reading a book about faith

Spiritual direction appointment (now is quarterly)

Yearly

Retreat

Celebrate the Christian calendar

Some feel my rule is excessive, but it has worked, even when I worked full-time. I describe it as handrails that keep me on the path. What would you like in your rule? Let me know.

You can listen to this episode on my podcast Mindful Christian Year by clicking here.

Welcome Back, Gift of Hospitality

Loving God, your son Jesus said
your Kingdom is like a banquet; 
a festive gathering for all people 
of every race and color -- 
a table at which the lonely find company,
the hungry savor rich foods and fine wine,
and strangers enjoy warm family ties.
Jesus calls us to build this kingdom here on earth.

Teach us, Lord, the ways of hospitality.
Give us the spirit of joyful welcome and 
the sensitivity to help people on the move
to feel they belong.

Grant that our tables at home may draw
our new neighbors from other lands
into a loving community
and that the eucharistic tables 
in our churches may prefigure
that banquet in heaven where all are one in you,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
Amen. 

Prayer for Hospitality from "Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers" 

We are emerging from the pandemic into a world even more conflicted than when quarantine began. Splits in groups and churches, largely along political lines, have damaged the American church. The gift of hospitality could serve the church even more than ever, as it includes civility, mutual respect and kindness in its components. 

The practice of Christian mindfulness aids the re-emergence of hospitality, as the shelter-in-place/ Zoom nation practices are now habit. To be hospitable in person, we must be more intentional in our behavior and attitudes.

This is no surprise. Some Christians have hospitality as a spiritual gift. But many others do not. They would rather stay in and watch a movie alone. Yet all are called to be hospitable. 

In 1 Peter 4: 9-10, Peter writes: "Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to share others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms."

In fact, the word for hospitality in the Bible's original Greek is "philoxenia," which means "love of strangers." I think we are called today to be hospitable to some "strangers" that we thought we knew, until their political choices involving votes, masks and vaccines made them seem different from us. 

In Romans 12:13, Paul encourages everyone to practice hospitality.  And St. Benedict asked his followers to see each person they encountered as a gift from Jesus.  

If God abides in us, as we who practice Christian mindfulness believe, we have the opportunity to show Him to all those we meet. Dealing with each other with civility, grace and love is a great step back toward unity in the church. 

This beautiful prayer for unity from Jane Deren of Education for Justice (published in July 2021's issue of "Give Us This Day") sums up our personal challenges within this period of time.

God of all, you challenge us
to be a unified national community.

You call us to move beyond 
partisan politics
so we may create
a vision of common good
so sorely needs for our country.

In this time of confusion, 
you call us to see clearly
with the lens of justice for all.

In this time of disrespect for so many,
you call on us to practice respect
for all voices around the table,
and for all voices not heard in the discussions.

In this time of personal insecurity,
you call on us to be grounded
in compassion for others
and secure in the knowledge
we are called to community.

In this time of despair for so many,
you call us to practice hope.

God of all, bless our nation at this time
and open the way to unity
so we may follow your call.
Amen.

Caring in the Present Tense

Mindfulness helped me learn that effective caring begins with paying attention to what’s happening now and letting the results emerge as byproducts of caring in the present tense. When caring veers into controlling, that’s when a dose of carefree ease can make all the difference. A smile of appreciation at whatever happens goes much further than a grimace of withering judgment and disappointment.

Founding Editor Barry Boyce, Mindful magazine, Spring 2021 issue

Christian mindfulness is about living in the presence of God in the present moment. Barry Boyce, who has written many wise things as the founding editor of Mindful magazine, reminds us that mindfulness requires staying in the now. As Christians, we add an additional piece of armor: prayer.

When we stay in the present and pray for God’s guidance, we can release all our guesses about what “should” happen.

“Should” is a toxic word. Thinking that events “shouldn’t be happening” keeps us stuck in frustration, anger and worry. Among the myriad thoughts of Jesus, the phrase “this shouldn’t be” does not exist.

Acceptance of what is and willingness to do the next right thing are the best steps toward peace of mind. This happens in the present moment.

Boyce also writes about caring becoming controlling. Or more accurately, attempts at controlling. The only thing any of us can control is ourselves. But boy, how we try to prove that wrong! In Christian mindfulness, our caring is attached to God’s will. We cannot always understand how things are going to work. If we do what we think God wants us to do, following the Scriptures and prayer, bringing our concerns to God with thanksgiving, He will keep us in His peace.