Monthly Newspaper • DIOCESE OF BRIDGEPORT

Articles By: Libby Clyons

Will we ever take these things for granted again?

I’m an introvert. I love my alone time and I love my personal space. I enjoy having time in solitude to be introspective. But what I have learned during this time of social distancing is that the more I isolate, the harder it is to socialize when the time comes. I think that’s one of my worries in all of this, besides the virus itself. It’s a great challenge—to know when to push myself and when to give myself time to grieve what we’ve lost—the sense of normalcy.

As a creative, there is also this pressure to be extra productive in this time. But I’m finding that these conditions aren’t exactly conducive to healthy creativity. The more I ruminate, the further into desolation I slide—so I find that sometimes distraction is the healthiest thing at the moment.

I want to offer words of hope but I don’t really have any. So I search for the message in the smallest of things—affirmations written in chalk on our daily walks, finding positive stories to tell in the community, discovering a swing set we never knew was there.

I am left wondering, “What could we have done to have made the outcome different?” and “What can we do to ensure that this never happens again?” I want action, I want answers, I am uncomfortable in this waiting.

What we’ve lost in this pandemic is our sense of the ordinary; we are bereft of the loss of the myriad social and personal interactions that form our day and our sense of wellbeing, even our spirituality. There is a numbness, where there should be curiosity and engagement. Does it sometimes take something being taken away from us to realize how much it really meant to us?

Will we ever take for granted these things again?
The simple touch of a hand, a hug.
Having the choice to stay or go.
A sporting event, a movie, your grandparents’ house.
Now that all we have is time to reflect, to spend with one another,
Will the life we knew before be enough?
Will we remember that there was a time when we did have time…
To go for a walk.
The work still got done,
The world still went on.
It’s bittersweet, this time.
Because in one respect,
It makes us stop and take stock
Of the things that are important and the things that really aren’t.
But will we remember what it was like?
Will we let it change us,
The way we do things,
The way we live our lives,
The things we hold in importance.
Or will we simply return to the way we were,
Until something else makes us stop
And go for a walk.

But I have to hope that, because all times of waiting are uncomfortable, and because out of discomfort comes growth, something good will come out of this. Maybe it will bring the change we’ve all been yearning for.

We’ve seen people playing instruments outside their windows as a form of entertainment, we’ve seen creatives release comforting content, we’ve seen food drives and donations, and people stepping up to fill a need wherever they see one. Is it possible to hope that perhaps this is the reminder that we needed?

To see the good in each other. To have no other choice but to take a pause in our own busy lives to check on our neighbor, offer a helping hand or remember how much value is held in a simple hug.

Sometimes we get so busy in our lives that we forget to pause and connect. My hope is that, for however long this time ends up being, I don’t let it go to waste. What is the thing that I had been waiting to do but “didn’t have the time?” I have to hope that God is somehow guiding my search to find the good in all this, and that maybe He will help me notice the ways He works in my life once again.

The woman at the well is in my parish

There’s a woman in my parish, you may have noticed her. She comes in through the back and sits with her head down. Her eyes are closed and her hands are open toward the sky. She doesn’t look you in the eye but there is always the slight twinge of a smile pulling at the sides of her mouth. She is not dressed in her Sunday best, in fact, she looks as if she has walked for miles and miles to be here. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

When her eyes are not downcast she looks directly at the Cross. She looks as though she has weathered many storms. There is pain in the lines on her face, there are stories of hurt in her eyes. Her hair is windblown. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

She blends in to the crowd, she asks for no recognition. In fact, you may not have noticed her there at all. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

No one knows why she returns. In fact, no one cares to know much about her at all. And she likes it that way, for if they did, she fears, they might not let her back in. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

But if we were to listen to the stories she had to tell, if we were to care, we would surely see God’s divine hand woven like strings of gold throughout her life. If you were to tell her that, she would simply cast her head down again, or maybe look toward the Cross, the slight twinge of a smile pulling at the sides of her mouth. She would shake her head, thinking of her many wanderings, her many mistakes. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

Surely she does not know Jesus, one would say. Just look at her haggard appearance. She doesn’t even mouth the prayers, just sits with her eyes closed and head down. Surely, she cannot know Him. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

Little do they know, she is close to His very heart. And He smiles on her in her efforts. And when she falls—which she does often—He is there to help her up. He calls her to Himself. She is far from perfect, but that is not what He wants. He does not turn her away. He offers her Living Water and she drinks.

You don’t know her, you don’t see her. But yet she is here—week after week, she is here.

And when she leaves she tells others of her experience. “He told me everything I ever did” (John 4:39). “And still he calls me to Him, and still He loves me.”

They say to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).

The woman at the well is in my parish. She is here—week after week, she is here.

Leave the light on a little longer this year

I have a confession to make…my Christmas decorations are still up. Luckily for Catholics, we can conveniently use the excuse that the Christmas season technically lasts until The Baptism of the Lord on January 12 (or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on February 2, if we want to get really technical).

But something in me just did not want to take down the lights this year. There was something about their warm glow that I just didn’t want to lose, because the doldrums of winter just seem so long without them.

What is it about winter that always seems so melancholy? I know it’s coming every year and yet every year I brace against it.

Is there a way to hold on to the magic of Christmas a little bit longer? One could argue yes, of course, Jesus is always with us. But there still is something especially magical about a baby in a manger. I am almost moved to tears every time I gaze upon a Nativity scene. I don’t know if it’s the vulnerability of it all that pulls on my heartstrings, or if it is the silence, the stillness, the holiness.

My family experienced some health scares in 2019. So in 2020 my focus is on wellness—mind, body and spirit. I bought essential oils and downloaded a meditation app. I made some doctor’s appointments I had been putting off, trying to will wellness into existence with almost equal exuberance as my determination to keep the lights on.

But it’s the spiritual side that is tripping me up a bit this year. I’ve lost some trust. And maybe this is part of growing older, or maybe it’s circumstantial…or maybe it’s something else. I’m trying to do what works for me—to form an adult faith.

Is it okay if picturing the Christ child as a vulnerable baby as part of a young immigrant family in a stable is what works for me this year? Can the tears that come to my eyes be my own prayer, even if that’s all I can muster?

If Christmas lights until February works for me, can that be okay too? Can I leave the lights on a little bit longer? Can I sit in their warmth and feel held by God in the Light of Christ, if that’s the only way?

My hope is to remain in these moments, to take each of them as they come and embrace them.

There’s a beach down the road from where I live. I run to the end of the road and back every day. Some mornings I wouldn’t stop at the beach because I was in too much of a hurry but this year I am going to stop every morning. I am going to take it all in—no matter the weather.

The ocean reminds us that there are days when things will be tumultuous, but there are also days when a peaceful calm will wash over us. And we can experience each of them with the same openness.

And we can leave the lights on.

What does our heart look like?

I recently moved to a new apartment and it taught me a bit about furniture, which taught me a bit about people.

I never had to buy my own furniture, so the process was a bit lost on me. My focus was on finding the best price. What I didn’t realize is that quality is also a big factor.

I figured that wood was wood. But as my friend, my sister and I tried to build a piece of furniture that I ordered online and the “wood” split, I realized that there might be a big difference between what is real and what is fake.

In contrast, I had also ordered a few pieces of furniture that were older, but refurbished. The original pieces were solid wood, but they were painted in a way that made them look beautiful.

This brand new piece looked nice on the outside, but it was made of something fake on the inside. While the older pieces may not have looked as nice on the outside, they were true, solid wood on the inside.

This made me think about our tendencies as humans to want to put on a façade to the world. If we follow all the rules of the Church and we say the right prayers and look like we’re doing what’s right, then people will think we are good. But what does our heart look like? Is it real, solid and genuine or is it fake, pliable and easily broken?

In contrast, maybe our sin is visible on the outside. We’re not proud of it, but we openly admit that we have failings. Maybe we struggle a bit with the rules; maybe we don’t always get it right. But our heart is solid, we genuinely love God, do our best and strive to do what is right every day.

I don’t know about you but I would rather go with the second option. When we acknowledge that we are human, we can make genuine connections through our openness and vulnerability. When our hearts are in the right place, versus looking “right” to the rest of the world, that is when true love of neighbor can occur. When we reach beyond the things that seem important to the real heart of the matter, true change can occur.

I think of Mary Magdalene. Others knew of her sin, looking down on her for it, calling her unclean. But she was so very close to the heart of Jesus. She knew very much what it was like to be human, to have failings, and yet she was so very close to the Divine. She may not have been welcome at the temple, but she knelt at the feet of Jesus. And he loved her, ate with her, welcomed her and called her his own when others would have turned her away.

In a February 2015 homily, Pope Francis spoke to a group of Cardinals, referencing Jesus’ act of healing a leper: “Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (John 10).”

The Pope continued, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners’ (Lk 5:31-32).”

This is the way I desire to be, the way that he calls us to be. The kind of open vulnerability that requires us to acknowledge our failings enough to be able to meet others where they are and accompany them on their path to Christ. I don’t want to just look like I’m doing what is right on the outside. Rather, I want my heart to reflect that of Christ’s, like a piece of furniture with inherent value.

Where mindfulness meets Catholicism

I am one of those people who reads about four books at once because I can’t decide on one. So one can imagine my joy when we receive books in the mail to our office. Something I am doing this year is keeping track of all the books I read to count up the grand total come 2020—so I am always interested in adding another to the list.

Every so often, though, one of the books on my growing list will make a profound impact on the way I think. I recently read The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment At A Time by Dr. Gregory Bottaro. It was a book that seemed to find me at the exact time I needed it, call it Divine Providence, if you like.

A parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford with his wife Barbara, Dr. Bottaro formed the CatholicPsych Institute in 2012 to connect Catholics around the world with therapists trained to integrate the faith with the practice.

He has given many talks in the diocese and has worked directly with our bishop on a number of initiatives. He is currently serving on a newly formed committee for ongoing priestly formation in the diocese.

Being a strong advocate for mental health awareness, I had heard of and read about the practice of mindfulness before but never in the context of my own faith. When I can combine my other interests and passions with my faith, the fruit that is yielded seems to be exponentially more.

In The Mindful Catholic, Dr. Bottaro presents mindfulness teaching alongside hundreds of years of Catholic spirituality, evidence which shows that these techniques have huge potential for enhancing our health and wellbeing.

Dr. Bottaro’s advice helps the reader to become more mindful and teaches one how to pay attention to the full scope of life in order to have a greater sense of freedom, joy and peace.

Of the integration of mindfulness and Catholicism, Dr. Bottaro says, “This is a natural integration that comes from the recognition that something about mindfulness actually works.” Dr. Bottaro makes the distinction between Catholic-based mindfulness and Eastern-based meditation, saying that many meditative practices seek to empty the mind, while Catholic mindfulness views the mind to be full of reality, allowing one to see thoughts and situations for what they really are.

Having fallen in love with the Catholic view of the human person through the work of Pope St. John Paul II, Dr. Bottaro read Love and Responsibility and later more of his philosophy and saw these writings as essential manuals to understand how we’re made and what we’re made for. “This foundation provides the perfect stability for building an infrastructure of therapeutic intervention to help people flourish,” he says.

Personally, I had been using mindfulness to combat my own negative self-talk. I would find myself falling into patterns of self-deprecating thoughts, letting them lead me down a path that God never intended me to go.

In The Mindful Catholic Dr. Bottaro writes, “God made you with the highest dignity possible and with a destiny for greatness, but we can all be tempted at times by the thought that we aren’t that good. This sense is at the very root of why our minds turn against us in so many ways.”

Many of the exercises that Dr. Bottaro presents in his book are aimed at bringing healing toward these thoughts and patterns.

He writes, “Thoughts and feelings happen, but they don’t have the authority to lay claim to truth. Just because they happen doesn’t mean we have to obey them, respect them, or let our lives be run by them.”

By learning to focus on the thoughts and feelings that are coming in a particular moment, one can be made more aware of oneself, letting the thoughts and feelings lead them to the discovery of truth.

One of my greatest challenges, and a topic that Dr. Bottaro deals with extensively in The Mindful Catholic is seeing myself as God sees me. He writes, “Learning how to practice mindfulness in a Catholic context is a way to recognize the dignity God created you with and take care of yourself accordingly…your happiness is directly connected to you becoming more of who God made you to be.”

Dr. Bottaro explains that mindfulness is ‘awareness of the present moment with acceptance and nonjudgement,’ and that applies to our view of ourselves. The author describes the merciful gaze of God, saying, “This is the foundation of the gaze with which God looks at us. This is the gaze we need to look at ourselves with.”

Changing my negative self-talk is something I have to work on every day. But with practices like mindfulness and the roots of my faith, as Dr. Bottaro writes, I can “step out of the thought stream, watching the negative thoughts float by as if you are sitting on a riverbank watching leaves float by on the water.”

(For more information on Dr. Bottaro and the CatholicPsych Institute visit: www.catholicpsych.com.)

Beauty breaks forth amongst the ordinary

I sat in the hospital waiting room, waiting for inspiration. Well really, I was waiting for my dad to come out of surgery, but I thought inspiration might come, as it usually does at times like this. The faces around me looked tired and strained. I watched different families file in and out, hoping that in with one of them would come a story waiting to be told, inspiration begging to be beheld.

But as the hours passed by I realized…hospitals aren’t at all glamorous and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t find inspiration here.

But sometimes inspiration comes in the places we are least looking for it. Beauty shows up in the most unexpected places.

Something my cousins and I always reminisce about is the way we celebrated Easters growing up.

My grandparents would hide our Easter baskets all around the house and before our coats were even off or before we greeted everyone hello, we would be off and running to search for them.

We’d look high and low, up and down and every direction in between, to the sound of my grandpa or my uncle behind us yelling “you’re getting warmer…or COLD, YOU’RE COLD.”

The thing is though, more often than not, our Easter baskets were hidden in the most ordinary places. Like in a coat closet or behind the stairs or in the fireplace.

These places that we saw every day in this old house now held hidden treasure. Something beautiful in an ordinary place. Something beautiful disguised as something ordinary or even mundane.

This makes me think of the crucifixion. Those who followed Jesus had just witnessed the grotesque death of not only their very best friend but also the Son of God.

But to others who did not know this, he was just another criminal being crucified. I can imagine the people that lined the streets as Jesus came by with His Cross, acting as if they were witnessing just another execution.

Something awful to some…but to most, part of their everyday lives. To them, something ordinary. “Who is this Jesus?” they might have asked.

But then the Resurrection happened. And that changed everything.

Something beautiful happened. In an ordinary place, in an ordinary time to seemingly ordinary people.

And God deemed Himself ordinary, because He loves us that much.

And because of this something beautiful, we can partake in the beauty of heaven.

After a long Lenten season, some of us may feel that our spiritual life has become ordinary. We may have become used to not having what we gave up with such difficulty in the beginning, or our prayer and almsgiving has become rote. But with the Easter season, something new is coming.

Eventually, those tired and strained faces in the hospital waiting room turned joyful, as they were called to reunite with their well-mended loved one. And so did my mother and mine, as my father’s surgery went well, in perfect timing for a celebration of new life.

Let that hope fill our hearts as we look toward this new season with joy. That hope that God has a way of making beauty out of the most ordinary things.

I guess inspiration did eventually come to me in that hospital waiting room…but not in the way I expected it. How like our God. Like an Easter basket nestled in a pantry. Like a father recovering from an illness. Like the Son of God Risen from the dead. Beauty breaks forth amongst the ordinary.