Nina Marie Corona, M.A., C.R.S.

Spiritual Retreats & Programs to Inspire, Educate & Renew

Still Learning to Be




I am an artist, but ever since I was a little girl I can only draw what I see directly in front of me.  I cannot create from my imagination.  Until reading about contemplation for class this week, I truly had no idea why this annoyance plagues me.  After reading Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt’s article, A Long, Loving Look at the Real, I realized that I cannot retrieve images from my memory because I do not look long enough at anything to remember it.  I am sad to say that my life is the antithesis of contemplation.  I have joined the ranks of the majority in America and have become a human doing rather than the human being I was born to be.  Considering my artistic dilemma goes back to my childhood, I have a feeling this has been the case since then.

Six years ago my husband and I went to Ireland for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  It was a dream that I had for many, many years.  We rented a car and drove all around that beautiful island for seven days.  It was everything I hoped it would be, but I didn’t know how to savor it.  We drove from town to town, from one exquisite scene to another, snapping photos and moving on to the next place.  One day we went to the Cliffs of Mohr.  We drove for hours in anticipation to get there.  When we finally parked at the top of the Cliffs, we looked for a few moments and then said:  “Okay, now what do we do?!”  There was nothing to “do” there — only to see.  We took a few photos and moved on within minutes from a place I longed to be half of my life because I didn’t know what I was supposed to “do” there.  I didn’t know how to enjoy “a long, loving look at the real.”  If I did, I might have had an image in my memory to paint when I returned home.  


This dilemma of not looking and seeing is not the only indicator of my non-contemplative life.  I have difficulty “wasting” time in play, and I do not enjoy festivities at all because I have always felt guilty just relaxing when I could be doing something productive instead.  I’m certain there are plenty of psychological theories that could explain my behavior; however, I have already begun the practice of undoing the damage.  Yesterday as I sat out on my balcony with a book I heard some geese honking overhead.  My apartment is on the fourth floor so they sounded quite loud and fairly close to me.  It took me a few minutes to remember to stop and look up, but I finally did and noticed beautiful flocks of geese flying in wild V formations so close that I could distinguish the black wings and white bellies!  I just looked — long and lovingly — and I even have the image in my mind to draw.  Imagine that!

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Distinguishing the Giver and the Gifts



Childbirth is an awesome miracle to experience, and I remember vividly the birth of my two daughters (three and a half years apart).  My husband and I were a young couple given the responsibility of caring for two perfect, precious beings with ten little fingers and ten little toes.  They looked so peaceful when they slept in the hospital crib and so angry when they cried!  When the nurse wrapped our first born and placed her in my arms to bring home a day and a half after the birth, I looked up at her with fearful eyes.  I had no idea what to do with this child, but the nurse seemed to be under the false impression that I did.  Fortunately it turned out that motherhood and fatherhood were innate.  We couldn’t help but love and cherish these babies with every ounce of our being, and they became the center of our world.

Watching them grow was fun and exciting.  I recall taking the girls as babies and toddlers to Church and gazing lovingly at them throughout the entire Mass, admittedly focusing way more on the children than we did on the words of the priest.  They truly were gifts from God, and we simply could not get over the blessing and miracle.  Every adorable gesture they made brought a smile to our faces.  We loved, nurtured, nourished, educated, and spent quality time with them as all good parents do, to the point perhaps that they became little gods to us.  We would do anything for them.  Years later there were times we cried out in angst to God who gave them to us.  How could He do this?  How could He allow this?  Where was He? 

The Principle and Foundation of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises explains that “all the things in this world are gifts of God presented to us so that we can know God more easily . . . but if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.”  It took me many years to realize that those words refer to all people, places, and things on this earth — including my children.  How difficult it is for a mom to let go of her children and to cling to and trust in God.  It was and remains the most difficult task of my life.  I often think of Abraham’s trust in God as he placed Isaac on the altar.  I have had to do that metaphorically many times with my daughters.  The first time I screamed in anger at God.  How dare He give me this gift and ask me to return it?  I felt betrayed, and I absolutely lacked trust.

I am grateful for the reminder that the curses that I encounter can be blessings if I respond to these things in ways that will save my soul because it is for that purpose that I am here on this earth — “to praise, reverence, and serve God . . . and by means of this to save [my] soul.”  Just as I should have focused on God during the Mass when my girls were babies, now too I must remember to turn my gaze towards God.  My life, my soul, and my salvation rest upon the foundation of God — nothing and no one else. 



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Who Cares?


Call me weird, but there are few things I find as comforting as those warm blankets they put on you in the hospital.  I had to go to the emergency room recently for food poisoning, and the professional, kind, and attentive care I received included one of those blankets.  It was a small gesture that made me feel especially well cared for.   It makes me wonder — how do I show others that I care?  How do I know and protect the boundaries that divide caring, caregiving, and caretaking?  

Caring is defined as “someone who shows kindness and concern for others.”  Notice that doesn’t include any real action.  Kindness and concern can simply mean being present with an empathetic and compassionate heart.  Yet we often feel that we have to “do” something — as if our presence is not enough.  When sitting with someone who is expressing some difficulty, the most caring thing we can probably do is simply to be present and listen.  

Caretaking can be described as “someone who takes care of everything.”  Maybe this person believes that in order to be a good, caring person, it is necessary to be constantly active, performing, and doing for others.  A caretaker tends to be a very controlling person.  He or she steps in to get things done for adults who are quite adept at doing for themselves.  This is all done with the best of intentions, but it’s quite disrespectful to control the affairs of another person.  It’s always best to allow adults who are capable to do for themselves, to learn, and to grow in the process whether they make the right decisions or not.  This is not an easy concept for caretakers to grasp, perhaps because a caretaker feels inadequate unless doing things for others and probably truly believes that he or she is simply being a good person.

Caregiving is yet another animal, and it is defined as “someone who expresses kindness and love.”  This person does not control nor take on the responsibility of another person.  He or she might spend time with someone who is depressed, provide care for disabled people, or assist the elderly or children with tasks that they are unable to perform on their own (to name a few examples).  While caretakers take the power from perfectly able-bodied/minded individuals, caregivers give of their time and talent to those who are in need of them. 

Caregivers are typically very selfless people, but it is important to remember that we cannot care for others unless we ourselves are healthy and whole.  It is imperative that caregivers take time to rejuvenate body, mind, and spirit so that compassion fatigue does not set in.  Time to eat, pray, rest, relax, and plain old fun should be planned in the caregiver’s schedule.  These are not self-centered activities but rather self-caring ones.  I know it’s cliché, but as they say on airplanes — put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on those around you.  If you can’t breathe, you are worthless to everyone else.

I personally fall into the trap of giving of myself until I am empty, and what’s worse is that I don’t always take time for prayer to fill myself spiritually.  When I am spiritually, physically, and emotionally empty I am useless to the many people who seek advice, care, and my whole-hearted, healthy presence.  Self-care is something I have to practice daily — some days hourly — in order to be a strong, joyful, peaceful, willing, and caring person.  That is far from selfish; it’s actually caring for myself with others in mind.  Otherwise I pick up the phone and am emotionally unavailable to the person on the other end.  

There are times too (or maybe it’s in certain relationships) that I am a caretaking maniac.  I interrupt my day and important activities, or my times of rest, to do things for people that they positively can do on their own.  On those days you would swear that I am the only one on the planet with access to the Internet, the telephone, or the bank.  You would also be certain that my cell phone is permanently implanted in my ear without an on/off switch.  By the end of a frantic day of caretaking I am usually exhausted, emotionally depleted, and extremely resentful.  Yet I am the one who felt the world just couldn’t spin on its axis if I wasn’t there to assist.  

So how would you categorize yourself?  Are you a caring person, a caregiver, or a caretaker?  Do you practice self-care?  Do you believe that your presence is enough?  Do you balance your time and not allow yourself to be taken advantage of?  One of my favorite sayings is:  “You are called to be a light, not a doormat.”  Being a caring person does not mean that you have to allow yourself to become worn and matted like a doormat that's been stepped on countless times.  Keep yourself fresh and renewed in body, mind, and spirit.  Maybe think of yourself like that warm hospital blanket that doesn’t do a thing but stay close and exude its warmth; yet it makes one feel safe and loved.  Remember, the blanket eventually cools and has to be warmed again or another blanket replaces it.  Stay warm — it can be a very cold world.  

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Life Tightly Woven

          Throughout the course of my graduate education in spirituality I have had to examine my life from various perspectives. For example, last semester I had to create a tapestry of my life, and similarly this semester we were asked to reflect upon and tell the story of our lives.  Last week one of my texts stated that “life is fragile and can fall apart at the seams at any moment.” Believe me there are days when I’m certain those very words came out of my own mouth.  I sometimes cannot believe the twists and turns of life, and lately it seems to be unraveling at the speed of sound.  But my life is more than a fragile piece of porcelain dangling on a ledge that can shatter into a million pieces with the slightest nudge in any given direction.

          The tapestry analogy gives me great hope.  When I was a little girl I had one of those toy weaving looms that came with a plastic bag filled with colorful bands of yarn, a wooden needle, and other tools that aided in pushing and pulling the yarn deliberately into place on the loom.  I enjoyed the tedious and intricate work of choosing a particular pattern first, then selecting the colors of yarn, setting them on the loom one piece at a time, and weaving each piece over and under the other threads until I reached the other side of the loom.  This process was carefully repeated until the project was complete, and voila, I had created either a pot holder or a scarf or some other such item.  Whatever the finished product, it was sturdy, tightly woven, and it would not come apart unless it was intentionally unwoven.  More importantly it could not come apart while it was being woven because it was on the loom in the weaving process.

          I’ve got to believe that my life’s tapestry undergoes a similar process by the Divine Weaver.  I can’t really say that it can “come apart at the seams at any moment” because it’s still on the loom, and it will remain there until my life is over.  The twists and turns that make me feel as if life is fragile and falling apart are simply new pieces of yarn that are being interwoven with the other yarn.  It’s a tedious process, and I will not be able to see the end result in my lifetime because the tapestry of my life is in the weaving process that is life.  As long as I am alive, the weaving will continue.  My faith tells me to trust the weaver.  He’s quite skillful.

T

he Divine Weaver

Author Unknown

My life is but a weaving

Between my Lord and me;

I cannot choose the colors

He weaves so steadily.

Often He weaves in sorrow

But I in foolish pride

Forget He sees the upper

And I, the lower side.

But the dark threads are as needful

In the weaver's skillful hand

As the threads of gold and silver

In the pattern He has planned.

Not till the loom is silent

And the bobbins cease to fly,

Shall He unroll the canvas

And explain the reason why.

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Now You See It . . . Now You Don't


I was thinking today about how easily something can become nothing.  Materially I mean -- those things that we value so much on this earth -- such as our homes, clothes, jewelry, electronics, people, jobs, and even our own bodies.  This is, of course, only natural.  We are surrounded by things that we can feel, taste, touch, hear, etc.  They are reminders of our material existence, and they are within our physical reach, so we place a high value on them.  It's all too easy because it's right there in front of us for the taking -- kind of like the opposite of the old adage:  "Out of sight, out of mind."  Usually it's more like:  "Close in sight and close in mind."  But these things that are in our sight can be taken from us in an instant.  Where then do we turn?

This came to my mind as a number of friends recently called me quite upset about the transfer of several local, beloved priests.  They are physical reminders of God's presence, and they act "In Persona Christi," so it's only natural that people are drawn to them.  We all want a piece of God -- a living, tangible, earthly piece of an otherwise invisible God whom we so desperately need.  A God who loves us, consoles us, corrects us, blesses us, graces us with countless gifts, and who will never leave us.  We reach out in so many childlike ways grasping desperately to fill this void.  And when someone (or something) seems to quench that insatiable thirst, we cling to it and are temporarily satisfied.  We think we have found the missing piece.  We are safe.

Then suddenly the physical reminder disappears, or the thing that we are using to fill the thirst no longer quenches, and we are once again left in our own desperation.  This is a frightening and lonely place that we prefer to run from -- to the arms of another person, place, or thing so that we don't have to sit there in our own nothingness.  Please, someone, something, fill this void!  The discomfort, the pain, the emptiness, loneliness -- the awareness of my complete and utter powerlessness is all too real.  I must regain control.  I must feel safe, secure, surrounded by people, places, and things that will subdue this awareness.  But this awareness is exactly the gift in these moments.

Here in this place of fear and uncertainty is a gift.  We can't purchase this gift; it's not advertised on television; we rarely even hear of it.  We can't see it, smell it, touch it, taste it or hear it (not physically anyway), so we might not trust it.  How can this thing which isn't a tangible thing do anything at all to quench my earthly body?  How can it hold me, comfort me, counsel, feed me, etc.?  Most of us cannot sit there long enough to discover that it absolutely can and does, and "it" has a name and is more real than anything or anyone we could ever come into contact with on earth.  He is eternal.  He is omnipotent.

True joy and freedom come when we stop running from ourselves -- when we release those material things which give us a false sense of security.  It is when we surrender people, places, and things and enter into ourselves that we discover the one and only reality that will never leave us.  If we lose all those people and things around us, and even our own physical abilities -- our arms and legs -- He will still remain.  We are safer than we could ever imagine, if we only stop running.


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Death and New Life



          Years ago I wrote a blog post about death and dying titled:  Death Becomes Us.  I basically said that we live our best lives in the constant awareness of death because it is then that we take nothing for granted.  I’m a bit older now and that much closer to death.  I’m also in the midst of watching my eleven year-old beagle lose the function of his hind legs.  My sister is struggling with late stage breast cancer.  My friend watched her husband die from brain cancer.  My parents are elderly and not in the best of health.  I have to tell you… I definitely do not feel like I’m living my best life in this constant awareness of death.  And I can’t help but wonder, what is this some kind of cruel joke or something?

          It has always freaked me out a bit — the fact that someday I will cease to exist.  I asked my husband this evening what is going to happen to Snoopy.  He has suddenly aged quite rapidly.  He can’t hear, can’t walk, and can’t seem to wake up from his very deep slumbers.  My husband said something like:  “He will just die, like our bird did years ago.  He will just fall over and die or never wake up.”  I have been extremely fortunate because thus far I have not had to watch a human loved one suffer and die, but if my reaction to my parakeet years ago is any indication of my response, I’m in big trouble over here.  

          I remember the day vividly.  I was cooking rice pudding in the commercial kitchen in my home where I had a food manufacturing business.  My co-worker Wendy was with me as always.  We were going about the usual routine when I suddenly heard a plop.  My parakeet Honey had been ill, and I knew that sound was coming from the direction of his cage.  I stopped everything and stared at Wendy and said:  “I think Honey died,” and I went into a panic.  I asked Wendy to go into the room and check because there was no way I could handle the sight of my beloved bird dead on the bottom of the cage.  Wendy was not a fan of birds, so she went in and confirmed my fatal assumption.  She kindly put a towel over the cage and removed it from the house while I proceeded to mourn instantaneously.  My little feathered friend who sat on my shoulders and kissed my cheek for over ten years was now lifeless at the bottom of his cage.  I ask you, how on earth am I going to handle a human death?

          Beyond the concern of the dreaded grieving process is just the gnawing question of the meaning of it all.  These beings — human and otherwise — that we are and experience life with simply must be more than matter.  We are dust and to dust we shall return is actually a hope-filled statement because dust in the cosmos is in a constant state of conversion and renewal.  Likewise dead and decaying organisms contribute greatly to the carbon cycle in a process that generates energy and life.  These are scientific facts that speak to the intellect and seem to somehow make sense albeit their miraculous process.  Everything seems to point to death followed by new life.  Each new day, season, and year are reminders of the process of endings and new beginnings.   St. Paul knew that long before modern science affirmed it.  He said:  “. . . just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  It’s a promise that not only comforts me but gives meaning to life, death, and suffering and great hope for my high-spirited soul.


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When Ignorance Is Not Bliss




I went to see the movie Selma the first night it came out in my area.  I was eager to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.; a man I knew so little about and yet admired so much because of the few words I’ve heard that he spoke.  The movie left me feeling ashamed, ignorant, and yet strangely hopeful.  It also jogged a few memories and shed new light on them — the light of truth.  

I grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s and 70s.  My dad was  fireman in our city, and he worked a few other part time jobs to support his wife and four children.  We were rather poor.  Initially we lived in a five family house in which each of the families had anywhere from one to four kids.  The neighborhood was a mixture of all white second generation immigrants — the majority being Italian and Irish.  My siblings and I walked to the public school we attended (initially all white), swam in the local community pool, and played in the streets of our all-white neighborhood.  We really had no idea of the mounting civil rights issues of the times. That’s remarkable because we lived in a large city during monumental moments in the history of civil rights including the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Newark riots (1967), the Fair Housing Act (1968), 1971 school desegregation through mandatory busing, and more.

Yet, I don’t recall being taught any of this in school.  All I knew is what I heard from the kids around me:  “They are going to be busing them into our schools, so we have to switch schools; the neighborhood is changing so we have to move,” etc.  Forty some-odd years later I’m just now learning that it was all exceedingly biased and all too similar to the scenes in the movie Selma. 

As I sat watching the silent marches in the movie Selma, a particular memory was sparked.  One day while playing outside I observed what must have been thousands of African Americans marching silently up the avenue.  The unified group spanned from one side of the avenue (east to west) and as far down the avenue as I could see (north to south).  It was a powerful and unnerving sight, but I had no idea what was happening.  The word on the street was, “They are claiming the neighborhood.  We all have to move.”  I am ashamed to say that this is what I thought and believed all of these years until I saw Selma.  I don’t know the exact year, but I’m guessing I was about ten years-old — old enough to have been educated about civil rights, and yet I wasn’t.

While watching the film I cried at the injustice, smiled at the unity, marveled at bravery, and was angered by the ignorance — the ignorance of people who were uneducated, fearful (of what I’ll never know), and part of the problem instead of part of the solution.  I’m disgusted with the officials in charge of the education system, the political leaders, scout leaders, Church leaders, and anyone else who should have known better and led children like myself towards truth, justice, peace, and solidarity. 

When I left the theater I couldn’t help but wonder why Martin Luther King Jr. was not declared a saint.  He was a faithful, peaceful, brilliant, zealous, compassionate, and dedicated man who devoted his all-too-short life seeking and working towards a peaceful resolution to a problem that was blatantly unjust.  Meanwhile, saints have been canonized who fought for justice in far less dignified ways.  Could the reason be because he was Christian and not Catholic?  When will we learn?  I’ll be praying to Saint Martin Luther King Jr., and I know he’ll hear me.








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