Home Blog

    Buttercups and Prayer

    buttercup flowers - Ashley Cooper/The Image Bank RF/Getty Images

    The other morning, my husband and I were walking at the park, taking in all the sights of plants and flowers and the sounds of birdsong. A large swath of yellow buttercups filled a nearby field. My husband reminisced about how, when he was a child, kids used to pick a buttercup, place it underneath the chin of a friend, and ask, “Do you like butter?” Lore said that a yellow reflection from the flower on the chin indicated the person did, indeed, like butter. Of course, the buttercup’s bright, sunny yellow was reflected on the chins of pretty much everyone. I remember playing that same childhood “game,” one that apparently dates back to at least the late 19th century. My husband noted that it is hardly even sensical; after all, who doesn’t like butter?

    While I do not know the origin of the old activity, it did make me think about how much magical thinking fills our experiences of childhood! Children might play in the forest and imagine a world where fairies exist. Some make a fairy garden with acorns, twigs, leaves, and the like. My own children loved to collect leaves, pinecones, beach shells, and stones. Natural objects seem to possess a kind of sacredness and are full of possibility.

    Though we can, of course, explain phenomena like yellow chins under buttercups scientifically, there is also a spiritual side to childhood that allows for imagination to imbue objects with meanings beyond their visible characteristics. Maybe a flower is just a flower, or maybe it has special powers to tell whether a friend likes butter and whether that friend is more like the yellow flower when her chin turns yellow. So my thinking went as a child, anyway.

    When I go on my annual retreat each summer, I like to try to get back into a little bit of that childhood mindset. For me, that means being more sensory, on the one hand, and being more imaginative, on the other. Prayer might be reflecting with Scripture and delving more deeply into who Jesus is, but it can also involve lying on my back on a large seaside rock and watching the clouds shift shape, much like when I was a child. This, too, is prayer, since it’s a way to let myself unfold before God through creation. I shed some of the parts of my everyday self that can get in the way of a deep retreat. I shed the bag that hauls my books to work and the business jacket, but I also shed some psychological layers as well. When I am open to admiring the buttercups that line the path to the pond or let myself smell the scents of the beach roses, a space is created in me that is no longer filled with my “to do” list or worries. And then God has a little more room to enter in.

    In recent years I have also tried to bring that openness into everyday life. Even when I do don my work clothes and find God in my vocation as a teacher, it is good to pause and to pay attention to the flowers, trees, and sky and to immerse myself just for a moment in the more childlike awareness of a Creator that is working through everything.

    Hope and the Common Good


    "Hope-filled actions place us at the service of others for the common good." - Austen Ivereigh in "First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis" (book cover pictured next to quote)

    There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption in which the two main characters, both prisoners in the 1950s, debate about hope. One says that hope is the one thing no one can take away, so we don’t forget the goodness of life. The other says “hope is a dangerous thing” that can eat a man alive. So, which is it? Perhaps that depends on what it feels like to experience the grace of hope and who benefits from the resulting action.

    The experience of hope is a movement in the heart, not a thought in the head. Its foundation is not on odds or luck, as when one buys a lottery ticket, but on our capacity to collaborate with God in love. Hope is not something we generate, but, like all graces, a gift given to us. And, most importantly, Christian hope is “expressed in concrete actions,” as Austen Ivereigh writes. He explains in First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis that, “Hope-filled actions place us at the service of others for the common good.” Hope without action is just a head game.

    Over the past two years, through my cancer and bone-marrow transplant, I have been dancing with and around hope. When I dance around it, I am afraid to embrace it, like a temptation. I fear I will be setting myself up for failure yet again. In those times, I feel alone and experience despair. When we are in our dark places in life, hope can feel dangerous.

    But when I have asked for and embraced the grace of hope, though I may still be in a dark place, I know I am not alone. My thoughts are on the world beyond me, regardless of living or dying. If I am able to live, I am hopeful for the times I get to spend and actions I get to do for and with others. Some days, the most hope-filled action I can take is to get up in the morning, not to do something for myself, but for another. If my body reaches its limits, my hope is rooted in the gift offered in the Resurrection, not just for me, but for all of us.

    Being invited by God to serve another person or the common good, hoping to pay forward the love we feel in our own unique way and circumstance, is the call of every Christian. Ivereigh goes on to say, “To love the world is patiently to serve it, as Jesus did, and as we are called to do: as this disciple, in this time and in this place, within this Church.” Why bother acting if there were no hope of advancing the Kingdom of God? Perhaps, then, the most dangerous aspect of hope is having none.

    Act Against the Creative Censor

    crumpled paper next to notepad - photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels

    We are made in the image and likeness of our God who creates. It doesn’t matter if we don’t make our living writing, painting, or acting; we are inherently creative.

    Now, before you raise a hand in protest, I’m not saying your breakout single has to hit the top of the charts. I would simply encourage all of us to recognize how much creativity is required in our daily lives. Planning a birthday party, mixing a cocktail, and mapping out the children’s summer schedule are all creative acts. Dinner gets dangerously routine without a pinch of creativity (and umami).

    So getting in touch with our creative selves is essential work. Creativity expands our horizon on what’s possible; it breaks us out of a status quo that might otherwise grind away at our souls.

    But too often, our creative selves are stifled. Fortunately, Ignatian spirituality has something to say about that. St. Ignatius tells us to act against those tendencies in our lives that put distance between us and God—easily said if not done.

    In an instance of creative block, what is it we are meant to act against? Bestselling author Julia Cameron, in her classic text/retreat, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, encourages all of us to practice what she calls morning pages. “The morning pages,” she writes, “are the primary tool of creative recovery.”

    In short, Cameron instructs us to wake up each day and write three pages, not stopping until we reach the end of page three. It doesn’t matter what we write; all that matters is that we do the work.

    “As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly,” Cameron writes. “We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and external critic, the Censor.” The Censor, Cameron explains, is that voice in our heads, perhaps formed in childhood, that says you can’t do it. Your work is lousy, and even if you had one success, you’ll never have another. The Censor stops us before we start, insisting that we’re no good and that nothing we could possibly create is worthwhile. Why even bother?

    The Censor, I believe, is just another word for the evil spirit, or what Ignatius helpfully names the enemy of our human nature. We’re made in the image and likeness of our God, who creates; it only makes sense that the enemy of our human nature would stand in the way of our creativity.

    And so, a practice like the morning pages is our effort to act against that evil spirit. “Because there is no wrong way to write the morning pages, the Censor’s opinion doesn’t count,” Cameron writes. “Let the Censor rattle on. Just keep your hand moving across the page.”

    There’s another Ignatian parallel to be drawn here. The morning pages are, in many ways, the raw material of the Examen, that daily prayer in which we sort through our day in gratitude to the Spirit. When it comes to morning pages—or a journal or a diary—what do we have to write about each day if not, in part, reflections drawn from our own lives? What comes out onto the page each morning (or afternoon or evening) is what we also bring to God in prayer. That raw, unedited stuff is then examined with the Spirit, and we seek out those places where God is speaking to us, showing us something new or important.

    But the evil spirit doesn’t want that either. How often does the Censor try to insinuate some evil will into our prayer, insisting that we are not, in fact, the beloved of God? That we are not worth delighting in? That God couldn’t possibly be at work in the mundane, ordinary, seemingly useless details of our lives?

    Again, we act against. We push on in creativity and in prayer, trusting that our God of infinite delight is intimately at work in our days. We push on, knowing that those little gems of creativity—that new recipe, renewed garden bed, or restored piece of furniture—are little reflections of God’s Spirit acting within us.

    Then, in hope, we wait and watch and work to see what good fruits our creativity bears.

    Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.

    No Patience

    time screen on cell phone - photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels

    I am not a patient person. I like to act quickly and want everything and everyone to act just as quickly as I do.

    Perhaps better than any human being, Siri knows this fact about me quite well.

    I remember being so excited the day someone told me I could ask Siri to text my husband on my way home. I tried it that very day, in fact. As I turned onto the highway, I hurriedly called out to my phone: “Siri, text Joey Crowder that I am picking up dinner and will be home in 20 minutes.” It felt like a lifetime before she finally responded with, “The name ‘Crowder’ means one who pushes or crowds. Would you like me to use ‘Crowder’ in a sentence?” Frustrated, I tried again, this time just as quickly but with a shorter message: “Siri, text Joey Crowder: I got dinner. ETA 20 minutes.” She responded, “The acronym ‘ETA’ is used as shorthand for one’s estimated time of arrival. To learn more about ‘ETA,’ please unlock your iPhone.” I gave up.

    The morning I contemplated what I was going to write for this post, I felt every bit of my innate impatience welling up in me. Before I got into the car to drive to work that day, I typed a dozen quick beginnings on the notes app on my phone and deleted each of them just as quickly. No good ideas were coming to me, at least not as fast as I wanted them.

    After I started my drive, I tried doing what St. Ignatius told me to do in prayer. I asked God aloud for exactly what I wanted: “God, I would really like 600 words of pure inspiration to come to me right now please.” I could almost feel Ignatius shaking his head from beyond the grave at both my impatience and my clear misinterpretation of “praying for a grace.” Needless to say, my prayer did not work, and God did not respond as expeditiously as I desired. Maybe I should have tried Siri again.

    Nothing really works as I desire when my lack of patience gets the best of me. When I am impatient, I talk too fast for Siri to understand what I am asking. When I am impatient, I talk too much and end my prayer too fast for God to get a word in edgewise. When I am impatient, I tend to block my brain and heart from accessing anything creative or inspirational. When I am impatient, all I can focus on is my desired wants happening in my desired time. However, in those seemingly infrequent moments when I am graced with patience instead, God’s time and my time align, and creativity and inspiration abound.

    Recognizing this as I pulled into the parking lot that morning, still devoid of ideas and filled with as much frustration as when Siri explained “ETA” to me, I decided to try something. After months of ignoring her, I asked Siri as calmly as I could to do something simple: “Siri, type, ‘Lord, may your time become my time’ in my notes app.” I figured if she got it wrong, it would at least make me laugh.

    But, lo and behold, she didn’t!

    When my car came to a stop and I pulled out my phone, the words exactly as I had spoken them were staring back at me: “Lord, may your time become my time.” As I sat and contemplated those seven simple words, I realized that this was the grace I actually desired. I want nothing more than to have God’s time and my time align and to be free from the bonds of my impatience so that our work on God’s project can commence.

    Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.

    God in the Details

    hand held out to light showing dust particles - photo by Dyu - Ha on Unsplash

    Once when I was a little girl, I walked by the front door to our house and noticed a shaft of light shining through the little window at the top of the door. The light stretched all the way down to the floor, where it formed a nearly perfect little square.

    I had never noticed that before.

    I lay down on my tummy, right in the foyer of our house, and rubbed my hand on the light on the floor. Then I tried to scoop it up in my hand, holding the light like some sort of superhero.

    My teacher had told us that God holds the entire universe in his hands and also cares about each one of us individually. I thought about this as I stood to line up my hands perfectly to hold the light. How could God be both so large and grand and otherworldly but also so close and tender and intimate?

    Then I saw it: tiny specks of dust floating in the shaft of light. There seemed to be millions of them! How had I never seen this before? I felt like all of a sudden, I was a superhero with super-amazing vision to see such tiny, little specks of dust.

    I thought again about what my teacher had said about God, and I thought of those little specks of dust as millions of people.

    As I tried to wrap my tiny brain around the idea of God both holding all of us in his hands and caring about each one of us, I felt God’s presence there with me. At first it frightened me to notice him, so powerful and mighty there with me, but then I felt his goodness and love, and I was simply mesmerized.

    I didn’t know it then, but God was giving me a little lesson about his transcendence—God’s presence above us, the world, and the galaxy—and his immanence, God’s presence right here among us on Earth.

    Now that I am a grown-up, I think about God’s immanence often. I am amazed at how God meets each of us in very specific ways. Well, of course, he does. He knew us before we existed and in our innermost places. But I love hearing how God shows himself to my friends in ways that are so different from how he reveals himself to me. God is so very attentive to us, through a word or phrase that has a special meaning just between us, like an inside joke. Or a call from that person, the one I really needed to hear from right then. Or that sense that God is there with us in the midst of our frustration, sadness, or joy.

    Just like a parent who knows chocolate is his son’s favorite flavor of ice cream or knows to turn up the volume for his daughter when a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio, God knows these details. Sometimes God uses these details just to show us how much he loves us.

    God holds the universe in his hands but cares enough to let us know he’s there.

    Photo by Dyu – Ha on Unsplash.

    A New Phase of Inner Growth

    lightning bolt near office building - photo via Pixnio

    Sometimes it takes a bolt of lightning to release our creativity and kick-start the emergence of a new way of thinking or doing or being. Scientists say that it may have been like that when life first began to evolve on this planet, that violent charges from the electric storms raging above the crashing seas were the triggers for chemical change in the “primordial soup” where the elements of life were awaiting conception.

    Certainly I have noticed this pattern in my own life. When times have been stable, and, though I might not have admitted it, there was plenty of time and opportunity to do something creative, I in fact became sluggish and stagnant, like a puddle of that primordial soup. Nothing flowed, and the days kept on coming and going with no movement forward. But when life fell apart and I had to adjust to new patterns, a new place, new people, and I was feeling stressed and pressured and didn’t know how I was ever going to come to grips with things, then, for no obvious reason, I also seemed to become more creative. Ideas began to flow again, and somehow I found the time to explore and express them. The bolt of lightning had kick-started a new phase of inner growth.

    In the bigger human story, history shows that it is often in times of crisis that humanity discovers itself. War, though it is an indictment of our failure to be decent and mature human beings, can also bring out the best in us, as we care for one another and work together in new ways to deal with the situations that war causes. Disaster often calls forth new depths of resourcefulness and altruism that we never knew we had. Evolution moved forward most rapidly when conditions on the earth were hostile, such as during the Ice Ages, when human beings had to invent new ways of surviving. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. Every failure is a potential learning point. It is said with some truth that we are often at our best when life deals us its worst.

    It doesn’t have to be anything as terrifying as a bolt of lightning. Sometimes just a small change in our situations can bring about a new growth spurt. Perhaps a change of scene, a journey, a visit with a friend, or even a book or a movie that excited new passion in us—all these can start a new pattern going in our minds and hearts and souls.

    —Excerpted from The Other Side of Chaos by Margaret Silf

    Photo via Pixnio.

    Hope and a Call for Change

    "Hope is not something we possess; rather, hope is what we do, when we act out of the conviction that it is worthwhile to seek and nurture life." - Austen Ivereigh in "First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis" (book cover pictured next to quote)

    As a spiritual director, I have the great privilege to accompany individuals on their spiritual journeys. Some of the people that I accompany serve in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC). With a rich array of professional and life experiences, they are at a point in life when they could retire. Yet they continue to offer their time generously in organizations that perform the works of mercy.

    As I listen to these individuals, I am continually in awe of the ways in which they strive to discern and answer Christ’s call to serve in their lives every day, both in their homes and in their communities. What strikes me most is not just how full their lives are, but their indomitable spirits. These are people of hope with a capital “H”—not a Pollyanna-ish or giddy hope, but a grounded hope, rooted in faith.

    When I was praying with Austen Ivereigh’s book, First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis, these IVC members were the first people who came to mind. Reflecting upon Pope Francis’s words, Ivereigh writes, “Hope is not something we possess; rather, hope is what we do, when we act out of the conviction that it is worthwhile to seek and nurture life.” Hope is that which empowers the individuals in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps each day as they work to realize the Kingdom here on earth.

    It’s a hope that beckons to us all and invites us to come out of our silos and follow it to the margins of society. Accompanied by grace, it illuminates hearts and discomforts; one is no longer able to be content when there is injustice and suffering. This hope empowers its followers—not just to respect the dignity of each individual one meets, but to help to restore and maintain the human dignity of those who have been robbed of it.

    It’s a bit risky, because once we accept hope’s invitation, there is no going back. This hope is transformational. It permeates the being, molding those who answer the call into men and women for others. This Spirit-powered hope is the catalyst for change that we need in the world today. And it’s an invitation as old as time; as Psalm 40 invites us to reply, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”

    Spirituality of Family Life

    father and daughter washing dishes - Yagi-Studio/E+/Getty Images

    There were two stone masons, each doing the same job. The first, a melancholy man, was asked what he was doing. “I lay stones,” he replied, looking sullen. “Every day, stones and mortar. No difference from one day to the next. I lay stones, I get paid.” His was a dreary life.

    His colleague was asked the same question. His eyes brightened as he carried the next stone and laid it upon the others he’d laid. “I’m building a cathedral!” he exclaimed.

    The difference between living a spirituality of family and going through the tedious motions of work and parenting is a vision of the big picture, the cathedral-building. To the extent that I can see the cleaning up, the doing chores, the driving children around, the to-do lists, the time for family and in-laws, and so on, as the stones in a cathedral, it is easy to have a spirituality of family life.

    The early Jesuits saw themselves as contemplatives in action. (So did the early Franciscans and Dominicans, for that matter.) Their work in the world was to “help souls.” Parents and spouses are similarly invited to be contemplatives in action, rooting themselves ever deeper in the life of Christ so that they might bear fruit in the joys and struggles of family life. Each family is a “domestic church,” a small example of a place where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name to manifest Christ’s presence. We too can see our daily work as helping souls—those of our immediate and extended families, our schools and communities.

    Christ gives each family member a unique mission: to be a saint, building not only a cathedral, but a palace in which will unfold the kingdom of God. And that mission will unfold one diaper at a time, one act of forgiveness at a time, one chore at a time, one stressful day of balancing work and family at a time. No mission is easy; but the struggles that make its execution difficult are also what make the mission glorious. And the glory is all God’s. And the joy that emerges, sometimes only in retrospect, is all ours.

    How Do I Identify the Work That Matters?

    woman in green shirt wearing glasses and holding files, looking confused - photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

    It can take awhile—sometimes many years—for a person to sort out all that she’s been taught, told, and in some cases manipulated to believe and value. Many people of faith must work through a period of rediscovering and redefining their faith, and quite a few of us, after a long process of interior sorting and pitching, reestablish ourselves in the faith that formed us. Only now it is faith we have examined, owned, dusted off, and refreshed.

    And when we reassess all that we’ve been taught and all that we’ve simply picked up over the years, it can be a wonderfully clarifying experience to identify once again what is important. We look with intent and prayer upon our relationships, our work, our possessions, and our pastimes.

    Also, we take another look at the “good work” we are trying to do in this world. We try to answer a few questions:

    • Does this activity truly reflect what I want to get accomplished, or is it a distraction?
    • Am I wasting effort, or must I be patient and keep working, having faith that I’m on the right track?
    • Does this organization, faith community, or workplace live out the values I hold dear?
    • Could I be doing something bigger and braver?
    • Am I still waiting for other people’s approval and reward, even though I know what must be done?
    • Should I be doing this same good work but possibly with a different group of people?
    • Have I found a good fit for my own gifts and desires as I do God’s work in the world, or do I try to be like other people whom I admire?
    • Do I have mentors? Can I point to people who inspire me forward as I do God’s work?

    For the sake of simplicity, I use “good work” and “God’s work” interchangeably. Anything that truly comes from God will be good for the world. But not everyone is comfortable with the term “God’s work.”

    • How do you know when you are doing the work you should be doing?
    • What has helped you sort out the beliefs and values that are at the core of your life?

    Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

    The Miracle Organ


    hospital bed - photo by Zoshua Colah on Unsplash

    During a recent holiday, I visited a man who received a new organ from a donor. Childhood illnesses had ravaged his body. These complications qualified him for organ donation, but he was losing hope after waiting for two years. Then out of seemingly nowhere, the hospital told him an organ was available. He quickly changed vacation plans. Instead of heading to the beach with his family, he rushed to the hospital.

    Now he sat on the edge of his bed, grateful, but spiritually confused. The donor was a young woman. He contemplated how a piece of a complete stranger now lived on in his body, while other parts of her flourished in other recipients. Out of curiosity, and using the few facts he had, such as her general geographic area and a bit more specificity than I’m including here about her age and family circumstances, he did an online search and found a news item: suicide. Of course, he had no way to know if that was really her, but soon his imagination spun freely, telling him a story of how she took her own life and how her shocked parents so generously made the decision to donate her organs, despite their grief. But how could he know for certain? The donor might not even have been the same person. Or she might not have had living parents. His facts could be baseless. Nevertheless, lively fantasies would not let him rest.

    After he received Holy Communion, I suggested we pray together for the donor, her family, and the doctors. We offered thanksgiving for their profound generosity and forethought. We gave additional thanks for those who harvested the organs, transported them safely, contacted the patient, and performed the successful operation. At a minimum this would have been five people, but it was probably closer to 15. Although something went tragically wrong for an unknown family, after that a whole chain of things had to go perfectly right for him to be sitting in that hospital room with me, praising God for his good outcome.

    He wanted to send a personal thank you to the family, but he wasn’t sure. What if they didn’t want to hear from him? What if it made them angry or sad? I suggested that he go ahead and write that letter and give it to the organ donation team. They would know from long experience how to handle it. Maybe the family would indeed want to know how their daughter lived on in others. Or maybe they weren’t ready now, but they might be at some point in the future. Maybe some members of the family would choose to read it, and not others. We cannot predict how others will respond to our overtures. Our only responsibility is to show gratitude with confidence and then pray that God will prepare the hearts of others to receive those words should they choose to do so.

    Photo by Zoshua Colah on Unsplash.


    Loretta Pehanich
    Marina Berzins McCoy
    Tim Muldoon