A Blessing

A Blessing
by John O’Donohue

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those
who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you.


You Are My Sunshine

I arrived at the nursing home too late.

My position with hospice was in Loss & Bereavement; that is, to help terminally ill patients prepare for their death and to be available to the families before, during and after the loss of their loved one.

When anyone would ask what type of work I did, and I would answer “hospice,” the reaction was almost always the same – “Oh – I don’t know how you do it – I would never be able to…” With that, they would look down, words trailing off, sometimes physically stepping away from me. I understood.

But for me, being with someone approaching death is sacred ground. No filter, no mask, no falseness. Just that person stripped of everything the world deems important, yet at that moment, more genuine. More authentic. Unpretentious. Beautiful.

When I met Walt, he was a resident in a nursing home.  Patti, his aid, brought me to his private room to introduce me. He was in his mid-70s, thin gray hair in wisps around his almost bald head, eyes rimmed with dark circles, face sunken and pale. His wheelchair, placed close to a window, bathed him in sunshine. The photograph on his bureau showed a strikingly handsome man, tall and thin, with blonde hair, casually holding a golf club, looking off to the horizon, smiling. 

Now, his body was bent and misshapen, knees drawn up, fingers curled into fists held tight against his chest. His head was angled toward his right shoulder, his whole body ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis.  He showed no awareness when Patti introduced me and his eyes – a clear, bright blue that belied his age – never left a picture on the far wall.

“That’s his wife. She died a long time ago. They never had children.”

She was quite pretty, dressed in a uniform that a flight attendant might wear in the early years of commercial flying – perhaps Pan Am or TWA. The only other item on the wall was a handwritten 8×10 sheet with words to the song “You Are My Sunshine” written on it.

“That was their favorite song. They used to sing it to each other,” Patti explained.  “He can’t speak because of his stroke, but if he gets agitated, we sing it to him; it seems to calm him down.”

So began my relationship with Walt.  I would visit him twice a week – him in his red cardigan sweater, slumped in his wheelchair parked in the sunshine, me seated next to him.  I would read to him, talk to him, sometimes just sit with him, while he would look at his wife’s picture.  Once, when I hummed “You Are My Sunshine” and gently held his hand, I thought I saw the briefest of smiles, but then it vanished.  It was probably just wishful thinking on my part.  There never seemed to be any change in Walt’s disposition.

One week, our hospice team was particularly busy with new patient admissions and I was unable to make my Tuesday visit with Walt.  On Thursday afternoon, I stopped at the nurse’s station to sign in.  As I rounded the corner and headed to Walt’s room, I saw Patti coming toward me, her face drawn and tired.

“Walt took a turn for the worse this morning,” she said softly.  “He died, not more than five minutes ago.”  She stepped aside so I could enter the room.

I stopped.  Walt’s wheelchair was by the window, empty.  I’d never seen him anywhere but in his wheelchair.  I looked around, searching for something – anything – familiar. My eyes finally found Walt, lying on his twin bed, facing the wall.

I stood at the foot of his bed and said a prayer, but it didn’t feel like enough.  I moved the foot of the bed away from the wall and knelt where I could see Walt’s face.  His eyes were closed, his wrinkles smoothed out; he looked like he was peacefully at sleep.  I reached out and clasped his hand, my fingers gently intertwined in his.

My eyes were drawn to the photo of Walt on the golf course and the one of his lovely wife when she was a flight attendant.  I closed my eyes.  As if watching a movie, I saw Walt – young, handsome, smiling – get up easily from the bed and walk towards a beautiful young woman dressed in blue.  They stood facing each other, holding hands. Staring at each other.  Smiling at each other.  Loving each other.

With carefree laughter and beaming smiles, they turned and walked away, hand in hand, bathed in golden light.  They were together again, as one.

As I looked down at our hands and smiled through my tears, I began to sing.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

Good-bye, Walt. Thank you for the privilege of spending time with you. Go, now – happy, whole, healthy – and rest in peace.

Today’s Quote

“There are two big forces at work, external and internal.
We have very little control over external forces such as tornadoes,
earthquakes, floods, disasters, illness and pain.
What really matters is the internal force.
How do I respond to those disasters?
Over that, I have complete control.”

~ Leo Buscaglia

Today’s Quote

“The truth is that our finest moments
are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable,
unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is in such moments,
propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts
and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

~ M. Scott Peck

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, But the Leopard Doesn’t (Part II)

Africa 2011 064

Part I of this post was detail-oriented about my experiences on safari in Tanzania, but I also wanted to explain something else of what I experienced on an emotional level.

I have been fortunate enough in my life to travel to many different places; you have my parents to blame when they took me on my first plane ride (to Florida) when I was 16 years old. I was bitten by the travel bug, and I’ve been taking trips ever since.

Even the planning of them is fun – I research the destination, its history, the people and go from there. I’ve always believed that crossing borders helps to break down borders, and that visiting other countries helps us to learn tolerance and respect of other cultures, as well as offering discoveries not only of other places but also ourselves.

“The essence of living is discovering.” ~ Vijay Krishna, Indian Scholar

When I return from a trip, I am usually glad to be home, even though it isn’t long before I am envisioning my next adventure far, far away. But Tanzania was different.

I didn’t want to come home. Really – I didn’t want to come home.

In all of my travels, in all of my adult life, I never felt more at home than when I was in Tanzania. I was home.

The peace I felt in Tanzania, the quiet, the rightness of it is hard to describe. It was nature as it should be, without the technology or infrastructure or constant noise or smog or fast food or overcrowding. Just the animals ruling their kingdom, and a small number of humans trying to honor them in their habitat, without leaving too many footprints. We were the guests.

On the day of our departure, each time we made a stop in our small plane, heading closer and closer to “civilization,” something in me would protest. My heart left a piece of itself imprinted on the land.

Why return to my fast-paced life when I could retain this simplicity – this authenticity – and be part of this more genuine-feeling “Circle of Life?”

Back at my American home, I wouldn’t think of sleeping with the doors unlocked or only a wall of screens between me and my neighbors. In Tanzania, out in the bush, on safari, surrounded by thousands of predators, I felt safe and at peace. I belonged there.

Come to think of it, I probably do.

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to take part in the National Geographic Genographic Project ( https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com ), which, with the DNA of participants all over the world, historical patterns in the collected DNA would be analyzed to learn about each person’s “deep ancestry,” or the migration paths of our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago.

What were the results of my ancestral make-up, my “ground zero?” East Africa. Which includes Tanzania, the place that felt like home. Where I belonged.

My ancestors then migrated to West Africa, to Northern Africa (Egypt), then the Sinai Peninsula, Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, to the Western Mediterranean. This route, from Eastern Africa to the Western Mediterranean, coincides with my paternal and maternal grandparents all emigrating to the USA (through Ellis Island) from Italy and Hungary in the early 1900s.

In Tanzania, my soul recognized that I was home. My cellular makeup affirmed where it all began. It was as if the land and the animals sang a song to my soul, and I answered its familiar refrain from so very long ago.

I walked in the desert but had no thirst. I sat with the animals but had no fear. I watched the Maasai dance, and the rhythym of their drums was already a part of me. Its melody sang and my soul rejoiced.

I will return to you, Tanzania. To your land, your people, your essence. I promised my soul it would once again dance in your sunset and be at peace.


The Lion Sleeps Tonight, But the Leopard Doesn’t (Part I)

Africa 2011 064

I’ve been fortunate enough to have checked off my three dream trips from my bucket list, one of which was to go on safari in Tanzania, Africa.

Africa. Just saying the name of the continent brings thoughts of adventure, mystery, vast plains, predators (both human and animal), culture, excitement, drama, exotic, richness. Something completely different. Something unusual.

My husband – not the risk taker – not comfortable with change – had to be coaxed (I think all of the necessary inoculations had something to do with it; he’s not good with needles). Once he decided to tag along, whenever anyone asked him if he was frightened about being so close to all of the wild animals, he very smugly answered, “I don’t have to run faster than the animals; I just have to run faster than Theresa.” Then he would show off his new running shoes. Nice guy.

My son and his fiancé, however, were eager to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I made the plans. I booked it a year in advance through andBeyond ( http://www.andbeyond.com ), a company that believes in care of the wildlife, care of the land and care of the people through conservation partnerships and sustainability. We flew from Newark to Amsterdam, then from Amsterdam to Arusha, Tanzania. Our adventure had begun.

In order to make the most of our days in Tanzania, I specifically booked a trip that would take us between lodges and/or camps by small plane (10-12 passengers) rather than by jeep; roads in the bush are essentially non-existent – they are more bumpy trails that take hours and hours to traverse. When flying between lodges, the vastness of the land is more apparent. As far as the eye can see, nothing but land – no civilization – with things that looked like ants which were really hundreds of animals, grazing on the savannah.

Serengeti National Park. Ngorongoro Crater. Lake Manyara. We saw giraffe, lions, leopards, black rhinos, cheetahs, wildebeests, Cape Buffalo, ostrich, baboons, monkeys, antelope, zebra, flamingos, birds (so many species), hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, warthogs, elephants…I can’t remember them all. In their natural habitat.

We slept in small camps with tents or rooms in lodges, with nothing separating us from the animals but stilts or screens or the Maasai tribesmen employed by andBeyond to walk guests to their tents at night, armed with a flashlight and a spear. We fell asleep to the sounds of elephants chomping or hippos swimming or buffalo coming through the brush. No telephones, only a canned air horn to sound if there was an emergency, and the Maasai and staff would immediately come to the rescue. We never used it.

At no time was I afraid.  And that included being on safari, in either a wide-open Jeep Land Rover or a Jeep with a pop-up top, watching as the lions crossed three feet in front of us, as the lionesses rubbed up against our tires, in the midst of hundreds of thundering wildebeests while having our morning coffee or floating above the Serengeti in a hot air balloon.

On safari, we went out on two game drives each day. One in the early morning, then one in late afternoon. Different breeds of animals prowl at different times of the day, so two game drives gave a better chance of seeing different types of predators. The elusive leopard, hard to see during the day camouflaged by the leaves in the trees where it slept, could sometimes be found on the move at night.

The safari was everything I had hoped it would be, and so much more. The Tanzanian people were all so kind. In fact, many of them expressed surprise that we would come so far just to see their country. Everyone was welcoming. We were able to visit an actual (not tourist) Maasai village, and were welcomed inside a woman’s hut made of cow dung and tree branches that she made by herself, which took her seven months. It was used for cooking, sleeping, and protecting some of their animals at night. The inside was tiny, hot, immaculate.

When we visited a residential school for Tanzanian children, they greeted us with bare feet and smiles. When I climbed out of our Land Rover, at least (no exaggeration) 100 children surrounded me, smiling shyly. I said hello to each one of them, and some of them shook my hand. But most of them just wanted to touch my arm; they seemed fascinated by my pale skin, and they explored with the gentlest of fingers. Their classrooms were wooden benches in old, plastered buildings, their dorms more of the same. The ingredients for their meals of beans and rice were stacked in burlap sacks in a storeroom. But each child was so proud of their school, and the opportunity it gave their future. They actually had an old model copy machine under lock and key, but the school didn’t have enough money to buy paper for their final exams. Paper that cost all of around $10 was a luxury they could not afford.

All of the moments were special, but one rises above the rest in my memory, filled with laughter. We arranged a night drive in order to try to track a leopard that had been seen in the area. On this game drive, there were 6 of us in a tiered seat Jeep: the four of us from the USA, our Tanzanian guide/driver and a tracker who sat on the left front part of the vehicle, on a seat attached to the hood. In order to not disturb the nocturnal animals, we traveled without headlights. The tracker had a red light with him, so that if we saw an animal, we could actually “see” it without bothering the wildlife with the harsh glare of a spotlight.

At night. No paved roads. Barely a trail. No head lights. Driving a few feet from the edge of a 12-foot drop to a dried out river bed (Tanzania was suffering another drought). At a high rate of speed. Hitting bumps and tree limbs and rocks and mud wallows. The driver using one hand to steer and the other to hold a walkie-talkie, conferring with another guide driving on the opposite side of the river bed. Eyes glued to the darkness, hoping to see any sign of the leopard’s spots.

Did I mention the high rate of speed in the bush without headlights? Our bodies were literally lifting off of the (hard) wooden bench seats – there are no seat belts in the Serengeti Plain – as we tore off-road. (Note: it takes an awful lot of momentum to get my body to lift off a seat on its own!!!). I’m smiling, my son is whooping with excitement, his fiancé is quietly hanging on, and my husband – always practical – is yelling, “This violates every safety regulation I ever learned…”

Wait – it gets better.

All this time, the six of us, with two in broken English, were belting out “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with blistering enthusiasm. Everyone knew the words; this was something that transcended cultures and perfectly fit the moment.

“A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, aweema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, aweema-weh, a-weema-weh… In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight; in the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh… Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight; Near the village, the quiet village, the lion sleeps tonight…”

In that moment, there was nothing but sheer joy in the experience. No worries…be happy. That kind of joy. Why worry about safety or being eaten by predators in the wilds of the Tanzanian bush? This was heaven, and the only race here was human.

And I swear that I heard a clan of hyenas laughing along with us…

Oh – I almost forgot – were we successful in our hunt? Yes, we spotted the leopard and tracked him for a few miles, until he disappeared into thick brush.

Leopard at night

But that evening was a success without the leopard. Interconnected. No boundaries or differences. In the moment. Together. Laughing. A blessing in disguise.

Sacred ground for all of us, alike.

Be well, Tanzanian friends. Be well. You are now of my family. My thanks for your gift of welcome and the experiences of wonder and joy. I will come again.


My Journey with St. Francis, the Jesuits & Pope Francis – Part I

St. Francis  by Jose de Ribera

A Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light, and
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive –
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Habemus Papam Franciscum

We have Pope Francis.

As I watched the breaking news, I put my head down and smiled, tracing the bracelet on my wrist. I wear the Möbius bracelet, engraved with the Prayer of St. Francis, to remind myself of my purpose.

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” ~ St. Francis of Assisi

The Poor Man of Assisi became a living prayer. St. Francis, who by embracing the poor and the marginalized of the world, affirms the light that is within each of us.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” ~ St. Francis of Assisi

Those marginalized human beings who I journey with as a counselor or as a volunteer – the lonely, the poor, the dying, the mentally ill, the abused, the ostracized, the forgotten. Seeing with the eyes of the heart. Where I look, in a sense, my heart sees unconditional acceptance and positive regard. Difficult? Sometimes. Necessary? Always.

Remember one of my previous posts, “She Who Hears the Cries of the World?” St. Francis knew of that light within each of us. Chaplain Susan knew. And with St. Francis’ help, so will I.

“Where there is darkness, light.”

Rev. Murray Bodo, O.F.M., in his book, “The Threefold Way of St. Francis,” (Paulist Press, 2000) reminds us, “The world’s greatest lovers have not been Don Juans and Casanovas, but Schweitzers, Gandhis, Helen Kellers and such saints as Francis of Assisi… True love…is free from jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance and rudeness; that it can bear all things, hope, and endure.” (p. 7)

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

When we embrace the poor and the rejected with compassion, we are actually ‘suffering with’ that person and in community with all human beings. And when we embrace them (…wings?…), we are, together, a living prayer. ‘I am one, but I am many.’

Later this year, I am blessed to take part in a week-long healthcare renewal retreat called “The Art of Presence.” It promises ‘renewal, respite and reflection’ as I am reminded of the sacredness of my calling in the giving of compassionate presence as a counselor. I so need this discernment for the next part of my journey, and I have no doubt that it will be shown to me.

Especially since the retreat will be held in a place called Assisi. Assisi, Italy. St. Francis’ birthplace. St. Francis’ place of burial, in the crypt of the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

My pilgrimage.

My journey that will take me onto the same cobblestone streets where St. Francis walked, prayed and healed. Where I can best offer my gratitude for all blessings received (and they are many) in this life, and where I can best humbly ask for guidance, strength and wisdom in providing compassionate presence to those most in need.

This  wayfarer – this pilgrim – this journeyer – seeks the essence of St. Francis in the place where his sacred work began.  Even though I carry St. Francis inside my soul, my heart wants to see his birthplace.  Perhaps it will be my birthplace as well.

“Make me an instrument of Your peace…”

Pax vobiscum. May peace be with you.

She Who Hears the Cries of the World

Kuan YinShe occupies a space on my mantle, so that every time I sit in our family room, I can be reminded of one of the ways I see myself as a counselor.

Kuan Yin. In Buddhism, the Goddess of Mercy. The Bodhisattva (Being of Enlightenment) of Compassion. She who hears the cries of the world.

Originally, as an intern at Loyola University Maryland for their Pastoral Counseling Program, I earned hours toward my Master’s Degree at a loss and bereavement center. That meant working will terminally ill people to help prepare them for death, as well as being available to their family members after the loss of their loved ones. We saw people in their homes, in an oncology center, in nursing homes and/or in our offices.

One day at lunchtime, a female chaplain noticed that I was subdued and asked what was wrong. I didn’t even realize I looked any different. I told her that going into the nursing homes was particularly difficult for me, as so many of the people housed there, although alive, appeared to have already died, their beings diminished. In fact, the nurses would tell me that some nursing home guests had not had visitors in more than 10 years (yes – you read that right – 10 years). The musty smells, their feathery moans, the pleading for help, the anguished cries, the gloomy atmosphere – all left a weighty hopelessness in me long after I ended each visit.

The chaplain, understanding in her eyes, offered this: “Theresa, when you are in the nursing home, for the residents…you are their light.” She paused to make sure I heard. “You might be the only “outside” person they’ve seen in far too long. For them, in a day that’s no different than any other, you are their light.”

I’ve never forgotten that. You Are Their Light.

I’ve learned that many of us don’t look toward the light until we’re alone in the darkness. That light brings us hope, warmth, a reason to get up and move forward. It’s a beacon, a guide, a flame, a spark, an illumination.

Then a funny thing happens. A quote I keep on my desk reminds me that with each act of giving, there is always something good in return. “You cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening your own.”

Smiling, being their light, helped me to shed light into my own dark and broken places.

Thank you, Chaplain Susan, for your wisdom and insight so long ago. I remember. In remembering, I, too am transformed.

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

So I seek to bring light. To be a messenger. To be present. To be a co-journeyer. To hear their cries.

Kuan Yin. She Who Hears the Cries of the World.