by Father Paul A. Keenan
A few moments ago, a friend shared with me the beginning
events of her morning. It was her day off, and she had
arisen early to run an errand for another friend. As she
was reaching for a box of aluminum foil that was in the
cupboard behind her refrigerator, she managed to knock
over a potted plant, breaking the clay pot and
splattering plant and dirt all over the kitchen, barely
missing some food she was getting ready to wrap. Her
vacuum cleaner had broken a few days before and she had
not yet replaced it, so she had to go to a neighbor and
borrow a broom, then sweep up the broken planter and the
dirt, buy a new planter and potting soil, and repot what
was left of her plant. This was not exactly the calm and
peaceful morning of leisure she had hoped for. As you
might well imagine, she was plenty agitated as she told
me her tale of woe.
We’ve all had mornings like that, and we know
exactly how my friend felt as she related her story. For
any given occasion of this, it’s difficult to know
whether it "just happened to happen," whether
it was meant to teach us something, or whether we
somehow "made" it happen in order to
subconsciously sabotage ourselves. Most of the time,
that can be pretty hard to figure out. There’s also
the Frequency Factor. In some people’s lives, such
incidents take the form of odd occurrences that happen
every once in awhile. But for others, life appears to be
an ongoing sequence of chaotic events; and in their
lives disorder reigns supreme. Serenity, for them, is
just a word in a dictionary or a far off dream.
When it comes to Serenity, while most of us may want
to imagine ourselves walking Buddha-like through life’s
calamities, we know that’s not a realistic picture.
Whether our moments of disorder are random or ongoing,
we know that all too often we rage, pound our fists and
completely lose our composure when life, in ways that
are seemingly endless, trips us up. Why, oh why, we
wonder, are our lives so out of control? Why are we so
tied up in knots all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if
we could become Chaotically Challenged?
I’d like to suggest that perhaps we could think of
two kinds of Serenity. For the sake of simplicity, let’s
call them Unplanned Serenity and Planned Serenity.
Unplanned Serenity is the kind we use on a daily basis
when life throws us for a loop. Planned Serenity occurs
when we have the time and leisure to remove ourselves
from the world for a while in order to heal.
Most likely, we are more familiar with Planned
Serenity. We are accustomed to thinking in terms of
vacations, spa time, going on retreat, taking a
sabbatical or in some other way "getting away from
it all." There are a million ways of breaking with
the routine and giving ourselves time and space to
relax, to reflect and to rest. Some people take a day
off each week, go to the mountains or to the beach or
take classes in yoga or meditation. Others create a
quiet space in their home or use their commute-time for
getting in touch with their inner self, finding peace
and composure in practicing the presence of God. However
they do it, they have a definite place in their schedule
for quiet reflection and prayer. It fortifies them and
enables them to face the day. Over time, this regular
"Serenity Period" provides them an opportunity
for deepening their awareness of the spiritual life, and
becoming familiar with its principles. They begin to see
themselves as spiritual beings and go out into the world
with a whole new vision of what life is all about.
We need those times of quiet reflection. But there
can be a problem with them. Have you ever gone away on a
retreat, had a wonderful experience, and arrived back
home fully peaceful, only to have the whole thing
dissolve when "reality" hits hard? I remember
one vacation with my parents when I was a young boy. We
went away to Canada, and had a really restful and
relaxing time. We got home and picked up our dog at the
kennel, only to find that he was covered with ringworm.
That meant confronting the vet, having Spike examined,
getting the right medication, and trying to be sure that
the poor little fellow got what he needed without giving
the disease to any of us. The message came though loud
and clear: we were back with a vengeance.
We need times away, but we also need what I like to
call "Unplanned Serenity." It’s the kind of
Serenity that we develop for ourselves when the
unexpected happens. When a crisis hits, it is a very
good idea to have resources at our disposal to bring
Serenity into our lives as we deal with what is
happening. Our first reaction may be to go to pieces,
but what is our second reaction? Very smart people know
that it is wise to have some reserves on hand –
people, places and things that will enable them to
experience some Serenity when, on the outside, it
appears that the lid has blown off of the universe.
The goal with Unplanned Serenity is to be able to
access instantly the feelings of peace and well-being
that identify Serenity for you. Some people make a
"Serenity Box" where they can store favorite
writings, recordings or objects that bring them to a
sense of inner peace. Having a Serenity Box gives them a
definite place where they can go to find what they need.
If reading the Twenty-Third Psalm calms you, copy it and
put it in your box. If there’s a special book or a
particular writer whose works give you solace and
comfort when a crisis strikes, put a copy there.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D almost always does
the trick for me; and if it does it for you as well,
stick a CD in your box, and perhaps an inexpensive
portable CD player with headphones (and batteries). If
looking at photos of your children or grandchildren
pulls you out of the doldrums, stick a few choice
selections in an envelope for the Serenity Box so that
they’ll be ready when you need them.
Of course, it’s perfectly all right to think
outside of the Serenity Box, too. Getting a hug from my
cats – or giving one – inevitably helps me. There
are dear friends who will listen without getting
involved with whatever is going on. (I don’t
necessarily want people to fix the situation; I may just
need to talk about it.) Perhaps there is a telephone
hotline or a prayer line that you find helpful. Have
that number handy. People I know find it helpful to do
yoga or some breathing exercises; these help them
rediscover a sense of inner calm. I have a friend who,
at a time of crisis, gets into his car at night, puts a
tape or a CD in the player, and goes for a long, long
drive to clear his thoughts.
Ironically, having Unplanned Serenity requires
planning. Whatever time you invest in that planning will
reward you greatly. It’s no fun having an unexpected
crisis come and finding yourself unable to step back and
get a handle on it. Your Unplanned Serenity will be a
lifesaver. In and of itself it won’t likely resolve
your problem. But it will allow you to remember that a
problem is not the end of the world, it only seems like
it. And that little space between you and your problem
(something that Hindus refer to as the "gap")
may be just enough to give you perspective, inspiration
and an encounter with the divine. And if none of these
things happens, at least you will have had some
unexpected fun while others are crumbling or wallowing
Unplanned Serenity gives you resources to draw upon
if you decide that it is appropriate to do so. In
certain situations you might prefer to let your feelings
of panic drive you into action, and delay calming
yourself until later. That works best for some people.
On the other hand, there are people who find they handle
a crisis more adequately when they take time to calm
themselves. You have to know how you best react to a
crisis and govern yourself accordingly.
For the most part, though, wisdom dictates giving
ourselves a moment to step back and develop some
perspective. That’s what Unplanned Serenity is all
about. It is a treasure chest of amusement and
inspiration that can enable us to tap into the creative
resources of the universe at the precise moment that we
feel most limited.
© Copyright 2003 Father Paul A. Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul A. Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.