Being born into an American household of predominantly Irish lineage, it was kind of taken for granted that we could explain away our worst family altercations by placing blame on the old Irish temper. It was just accepted as fact that we were all a bit fiery on the inside. When our passions were stoked, usually when we perceived we or someone we cared for had been wronged, we quickly entered into fight mode. Mostly our exchanges were of an intense verbal nature and not just a few reached a decibel which could be heard by neighbors near and far. I clearly recall being on the way home from a bike ride at age 6 or 7 and turning onto my street at an intersection that was about half a block from my house. I could very clearly hear my father yelling at my brothers. I learned pretty quickly it was better to take a detour at times such as this rather than enter the fray and risk becoming a secondary target of the rage.
Observing these outbursts and the subsequent fallout became a “normal” part of my childhood. It’s what we did. One late afternoon on a Saturday towards the end of summer my parents were outside doing yard work. I was suffering miserably from boredom, yet my creative brain had just dreamed up a solution to put an end to the day’s monotony. I was relieved and excited, but there was one caveat; my solution required a trip to the store for some craft supplies. I asked very nicely if one of them would take a break and run me to the store to pick up said items. “No”, they both answered separately. I proceeded to beg passionately, “Pretty pleeeaaassseee?” I pleaded and made my best case and even tried to barter taking on extra chores around the house if.only.someone.would.take.me. “No!” This terse, resounding and irritable response from the two of them, in infuriating unison, activated the ferocity within. Without any warning, while screaming and yelling at the injustice of it all, I threw a punch through what I believed to be a plexiglass door. Turned out it was glass. They took me for a ride that afternoon, not to the store, but to the clinic to get stitches in my wrist. Sitting up on the doctor’s examining table, at the tender age of ten years old, I remember the doctor speaking in hushed tones to my parents of concerns about my “anger problem”. That may have been the first time I realized that what was “normal” in my house might not be considered normal to outsiders. I felt ashamed.
During my forty years of life’s journey since that doctor quietly named my “anger problem” there have been plenty experiences when the same sense of shame returned. These sudden and powerful bursts of my temper left me exhausted, embarrassed and in need of making amends to those who were witnesses or recipients of their fury. I wished I could just ditch this angry part of me alongside the road and keep traveling, like the inedible parts of a piece of fruit I tossed out the window of my car on road trips. But it hasn’t been that easy and so far my attempts at extricating this fiery temper from my being have been entirely unsuccessful.
Metamorphosis may be defined as the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. As I sense an exodus from what I hope will prove the most difficult years of parenting my soon to be post-adolescent daughter, it seems my temper has undergone a sort of evolution. No longer is it as externally observable, but it has now gone underground and tends to wage a fierce battle in my mind and my heart when an ideal or belief I hold sacred is violated. Pandemic living, in all of its previously unimaginable facets has presented a whole slew of weekly, if not daily violations. I find them all over, the people who violate my sacred ideals and beliefs. They are found in the news every day—members of a political party who seem to me cruel and heartless, at times even vicious in their response to my brothers and sisters who have suffered for so long. They are found writing emails that populate my inbox at work—complaining about being “persecuted” because they are unable to experience church in the same way they were used to in pre-pandemic days. These people are found in my American Catholic community—excitedly sharing vile and disparaging articles on social media about other members of the Body of Christ, degrading us to a mere reflection of the country’s divided political system. They are members of my brother’s Arizona town—confronting him at a local home improvement store to tell him he is a “fu**ing idiot” for wearing a mask (he works in the medical field). They are my neighbors who share the beloved trail where I go to find relief from this crazy world—running four people across, not moving as I approach, forcing me off trail to avoid an accident that would have injured all of us.
These perceived transgressions of humanity, and countless others, they have consumed me for weeks. They have battled for my emotional energy and they have fueled my anger and frustration on the daily. Coupled with six weeks of working 70-hour weeks as part of the effort to reopen the parish where I serve, rendering me unable to find time for self-care and grounding prayer, my temper has been gaining strength within my being. There is something quite powerful when one feels justified and righteous in one’s rage. Every new infraction on another’s part only served to widen the divide of US vs. THEM within me. Each perceived violation thoroughly convinced me mine was the right team and my judgments all correct.
That day I was forced off the trail by the runners, it was as if my loving Creator intervened to push me off my path of self-destruction. It had been my first day off from work in weeks and I desperately needed to find some balance and reground in goodness. Reciting the Rosary while riding along on my bike, suddenly forced off the trail to avoid an accident, the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….” were interrupted by the most heinous slur of expletives coming not from an outsider, but from within my brain. I stopped them from leaving my mouth, but regardless, they provided me with a wake-up call. They were direct evidence of the ugliness consuming me and claiming me as its own. I was becoming the very divisive, unloving, cruel, heartless embodiment of what I exactly despised in others.
“Hurt people hurt people”, my friend Carlos reminded me in an email. His words coupled with recent experiences served to bring forth the acute awareness of a need for a different way. It had been way too easy to get carried away in the fight of US vs. THEM and I needed to reverse my course. The past few weeks I’ve been about getting back to the basics of prayer, self-care, filling my mind and soul with lovely things and the voices of wisdom speakers. Surprisingly it is almost as easy to seek out and notice the lovely, as it is to seek out and notice the ugly, but it isn’t always so self-satisfying. Rather, loveliness and wisdom serve to bring me to my knees. They humble me and remind me of my very low and insignificant place in this world, how much I am a work in progress with a far way to go, but paradoxically they also serve to affirm my belovedness and great significance in the eyes of Love.
One recent morning while attending daily Mass, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been asking of God, what is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to be in this world? How do I contend with all that breaks my heart and my spirit? Sometimes God has to shout to get my attention. It was the last sentence in the First Reading of the day:
And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Wow! What a clear and simple formula, right? It might be if my fiery temper and humongous ego didn’t try to trip me up every.single.step.of.the.way.
In the aftermath of the death of the great Civil Rights Activist, John Lewis, the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett rebroadcast an extraordinary conversation with John recorded in 2013. Listening to John describe his life’s journey is to hear a man who did the work to become an embodiment of Micah 6:8. As he stated, it isn’t something natural to become this way. He says we have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace can a human being proclaim,
“In the religious sense, in a moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the Divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the Divine in your fellow human being…you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone…You beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”John Lewis
I find his witness absolutely stunning. It is breathtaking. It is the opposite of everything I mostly see happening in the world around us right now. It is contrary to everything my arrogance and my thirst for revenge demand, even of those who have only slightly offended me. I stand in wonder and awe at Love so present within this human soul. It is the same Love incarnate found in Christ, even in the face of His unjust crucifixion. It is radical, counter-cultural, blessing those who persecute, standing with the poor and the outcast, never hating the oppressor, only the sin. It is forgiveness freely offered in the face of the unforgivable.
In the book, “Becoming Mister Rogers”, author Shea Tuttle describes a professor of theology who taught Fred Rogers during his studies to become an ordained minister. Dr. Orr had a unique way of describing evil that resonated with Fred. He referred to it as “The Accuser”. As Fred recalled, “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her…Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives.”
Dr. Orr taught that Jesus stands in complete contrast as “The Advocate”. In an interview Fred Rogers said of this, “Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”
With all of the issues that have arisen during these early months of the pandemic, growing in prominence in the exchanges from both sides of every issue is the reality of “cancel culture”. Cancel culture not only eggs us on to dismiss the ideas we find appalling, but it pushes us further to completely nullify the human dignity of the persons whose ideas we love to hate. This is exactly what I now see the Accuser has been tempting me to do, boldly, but falsely asserting to me that to do so is a righteous endeavor. In stark contradiction, the Advocate calls me forth to the work of loving, accepting and honoring the spark of the Divine in every human being. He dares me to demonstrate the most rebellious act possible when confronted with evil words and actions—forgiveness.
Jesus was serious when He said, “Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you.” And in opposition to what I imagine as being fair, He offered no provisions to disregard this commandment. He didn’t say, if your enemy suffocates and kills an innocent man of color, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy complains about how what you did to help them return to church isn’t good enough, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul and countless hours to make it happen, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy says and propagates falsities about their own brothers and sisters in faith, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy verbally attacks your brother for taking steps to keep others safe, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy puts your physical safety in danger by not making space for you on the trail, you can hate him. This commandment is hard to embrace and even more difficult to live. Yet it isn’t impossible to follow when we cooperate with Divine Grace and let it transform us, just as John Lewis did, just as Fred Rogers did, just as countless humans who have gone before us did and in doing so have forged the path for us to follow.
After weeks of angst and grappling with all that has been transpiring in my inner life, last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing a young man from the parish where I work receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is our belief that through this sacrament there is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which we are given the increased ability to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives and to witness Christ in every situation. Father was wearing vestments of bright red and gold and I was struck by the beauty of what they represented—the Holy Fire we would be calling upon to descend on us and energize us to love more fully. At the moment he was tracing the sign of the cross and anointing the forehead of the Confirmandi with the oil of Chrism, deep within me I felt a nudge to offer up to God the fiery temper that is mine. I imagined an all-encompassing Holy Fire descending from above co-mingling with my unholy fire ascending from below, its flames consuming the hatred with which my temper has burned as of late.
A peace was restored to me that day that has graciously remained. Its presence reveals to me the inner reformation required to become an Advocate cannot be accomplished through my efforts alone, but requires me to traverse the long path as a student in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace will I become a force of good in the face of evil and be able to offer forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable. From Accuser to Advocate, I am a work in progress; thankfully God never gives up on anyone.
John, Fred, all you saints of God who have walked this way before us, pray for us.
Growing up I was a cat hater. One cranky old cat, belonging to my great-grandmother, decided the reputation of all cats, present and future, by scratching me and drawing blood when I was five. After that, I was done with cats. Or so I thought.
Dogs were our pet of choice in the Lohenry Family. First came Max, a charming Welsh Terrier. And after Max succumbed to diabetes which sent him to dog heaven much too soon, we welcomed Muffin. She was a black
Cockapoo who, despite my father’s pledge he would never love another dog, overcame the challenge and won him over. I don’t know if it was her daily delivery of the newspaper at his feet or the overzealous greeting she demonstrated each day he came home from work, but she was successful.
When my husband and I deemed it a good time to add a puppy to the Gilligan household we returned to the terrier breed and brought home a West Highland Terrier who was quickly dubbed Coconut. But quite sadly, our dog days were numbered and after some excruciating deliberations, he was sent to live with a new family.
Trying to replace a new puppy with something like a gerbil or hamster or fish or bird didn’t seem to cut it with my five year old, so against all of my deeply rooted prejudices, we rescued a cat. My husband had some limited experience with them and assured me they were quite easy and entertaining. Against my instincts, I trusted him and boy am I glad I did!
Currently our family pets include Sweet Pea, 11 years old and Finnegan, 9 years old. They have been incredible companions on the journey of family life and each has charmed and delighted us in individual ways.
Sweet Pea can be kind of cranky, but if you find yourself feeling under the weather, or just sad, she will gently show up to be a support and comfort. “Nurse Peep” is her nickname for times such as this.
Finnegan, we are convinced, was gifted by the Creator with the super power of cuteness to save him from the consequences his devious side should merit. He has the ability to look so cute that any anger or frustration he elicits with his devilish ways instantly melts when he employs this, his greatest weapon. He has at least 25 nicknames, all to which he responds with a charming gaze. To be completely transparent, there may just be more pictures of him on my phone than there are of my own kiddo.
In these most difficult of days brought to us courtesy of a global pandemic, it became very apparent, very quickly, that Sweet Pea and Finn might just hold the key to our better survival of such times. After all, they are indoor cats (minus the occasional supervised minute outside the front door) and their lives consist of perpetual sheltering in place.
To help organize and focus myself during the chaotic days of pandemic living, I began sharing daily on Facebook the lessons I was learning through a closer observation of their ways. After all, we are stuck in a tiny house, approximately 1,000 square feet, with 3 humans and 2 cats. I figured I might as well try to make the best of it.
So without further ado, in an act of repentence for my former hatred of the feline species, I share the ten lessons my beloved Sweet Pea and Finn have taught me:
Look as cute as possible. It helps those who are stuck inside with you ❤
Spend at least a little time each day contemplating the beauty in nature. It’s good for the soul ♥
Take this time to share more meals with those with whom you are sheltering. It gives you time to connect positively ♥
Take naps. It gives your body, mind and soul some much needed rest and rejuvenation during these stressful days ♥
Get outta your silo and spend some extra time hanging out with those you love ♥
Sometimes you just gotta get creative in the pursuit to entertain yourself ♥
Do not waste food. You don’t wanna have to go to the grocery store more often than needed and right now, more than ever, is a time to be grateful for the blessing of food ♥
Some days call for some lazy time spent basking in the sun. We all can benefit from an extra dose of Vitamin D ♥
Even though we don’t always get along, it is nice to have family with which to self-isolate. We are stronger together ♥
If you want alone time in a tiny house, you absolutely gotta get creative and find a good hiding place ♥
Though the days ahead may bring more freedom than we’ve known for the last 8 weeks, I’m grateful for the 10 lessons imparted from my wisdom teachers, my beloved cats. Certainly they will prove helpful should I be required to self-quarantine due to exposure to the corona virus or even if I just find myself yearning to embrace my inner introvert for awhile.
Stay safe and healthy y’all!
The Road to Emmaus is a story contained in the Gospel of Luke that takes place just three days after the Resurrection of Jesus. Two followers of Christ are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They are discussing all that had taken place, from Jesus being handed over to the chief priests, His condemnation to death, His crucifixion, how the stone at His tomb had been found rolled away and of the angels who appeared and announced to the women, “He is alive!” While they were talking, Jesus draws near and begins walking with them. It says they did not recognize Him. When He asks of them what it is they are conversing about, they reply, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days? And as Jesus so masterfully does many times in the Gospels, He replies to their question with his own question: “What things?”
The two men take the time to give Jesus the summary of what has taken place. After explaining everything Jesus asks them “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And from that moment forward, He speaks of the words of Moses and the prophets and interprets to those on the way all the things in the scriptures which referred to Him, including these very events which had just occurred.
When they draw near to the village of Emmaus, Jesus looks as if He is going to continue on elsewhere, but His followers urge Him to stay with them. He sits at table with them, takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize Him; and he vanishes from their sight. This encounter propels them to immediately get up from the table and travel seven miles back to Jerusalem. There they find the eleven disciples of Jesus and they proceed to tell them what they had just seen. They explain to them everything that happened on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Ever since I heard this story recounted in the liturgy last Sunday, the words “He had been made known to them in the breaking…” have echoed in my head and heart. It seems to me in our days of living in the midst of a global pandemic, most everything is breaking, as it must have seemed to the followers of Christ after His crucifixion. Almost all of the foundations on which we have built the structure and meaning in our lives have crumbled underneath a real and ever present threat to the health of the world. It is utterly unbelievable and unreal. How quickly it has all come falling down. The implications are life changing and mind blowing.
In the earliest days of the stay at home orders I found myself scattered, experiencing difficulty in focusing with a sense of God’s presence evading me. I perceived myself to be walking perilously close to the edge of mental breakdown. This is something that is not unfamiliar to me and with experience I have better learned to recognize its closeness. What I swiftly realized is that which was propelling me closest to danger was more about others’ suffering than my own. Watching the stories of how families were separated from their hospitalized loved ones was gut-wrenching and worse yet was hearing of those dying alone. Suddenly, nurses and doctors who normally are responsible for attending to the physical health of patients were now having to fill in and provide some kind of emotional and spiritual support to both the dying and their families. And all the while, they are in the midst of suffering their own kind of hell, encountering unprecedented traumatic experiences each and every day.
The economic fallout, though somewhat affecting me personally, was put into perspective real quick when a cherished friend confided in me that her living situation had been radically altered. Previously all of the siblings had been combining their salaries to keep their household of four young adults as well as their elderly parents afloat. Now with business closures, reduced hours and unemployment, they were cumulatively living on one salary among the four working members. When she told me the six of them were only able to eat one meal per day I thought my heart was going to break into two. I grappled mightily with this revelation that poverty and need was as close as it has ever been to me. In this dark place of intense sadness, feeling paralyzed and close to breaking, He was made known to me.
Although it may be laughable to some, pretty consistently throughout my life since adolescence, my Creator has chosen to draw near to me through lyrics of songs and most often through those penned by the infamous Bono of the band U2. Such was the case on St. Patrick’s Day when Bono, self-isolating at his home overlooking beautiful Killiney Bay outside of Dublin, sat down at the piano and filmed himself singing a song he had just written entitled, “Let Your Love Be Known.” As I listened to the words and tears streamed down my face, I recognized that in the breaking of my heart and in the breaking of things I thought were certain, Jesus was making Himself known to me anew. It became crystal clear that in the midst of all this chaos and catastrophe, I have the power to do one thing and one thing only. Each and every morning on decent days and as often as is necessary on the worst of days, I ask myself, how can I make my love known today? What can I do to relieve the suffering of others in my little way? And then I humbly implore of my God, please let Your love be known through me. This question and pleading have grounded me and led me away from the precipice of despair. They have restored hope and have opened my eyes to look for the opportunities to show love and to recognize love being made known through others.
One of the first opportunities when I recognized love being made known through others was the day I shared with a small group of five childhood companions the story of my friend’s situation wherein six adults living under one roof were only able to afford one meal a day. We were group messaging, discussing the toll of recent days. I was only hoping to relieve my heartbreak by sharing my sadness. What happened next blew my mind. One after the other, these women and their families reached out with gifts of food, toilet paper and cash for me to pass onto my friend. Even my goddaughter, a high school student working part-time at Target, responded with a large sum of her savings toward the collection. We each did what we could and in the end we delivered over $1500 cash and gift cards, along with loads of supplies. We have an immense power, both individually and collectively to lighten the burden that crushes so many right now. The family was enabled to pay their mortgage and to secure enough food for a while. Since then many more opportunities have presented themselves. Time and time again, I have witnessed people of goodwill step up to care for others in creative and inspiring ways, even for strangers in need.
As we enter into another month of self-isolation, I still try to let a good dose of the world’s suffering into my heart, so as not to grow cold. But I have also begun to balance the breaking with the bright spots. For me these include the simple blessings which once went largely unnoticed when we were living in the normal day-to-day. Waking up to the laughter of my girl, who has at times taken on the schedule of your average vampire, has been like a medicine for my soul. Instead of being annoyed that she is up all night, I revel in the sound of the joy reverberating through my house in the early morning. When praying a blessing over my food before meal times, somehow my thoughts and intentions now include gratitude for the soil and its nutrients, the sun and the rain, the farmers and the food packagers, the pickers in the fields, the truck drivers and the grocery workers; all of these give of themselves to make it possible for me to nourish my body with food. For the first time in my adult life I find a sense of excitement to work outside in my yard to clean up the winter’s leaves and tackle the emerging weeds. To be surrounded by the beauty of spring and the new life it promises against the contrast of devastation that is our current reality is a gift unlike ever before.
On the Road to Emmaus, the followers of Jesus didn’t recognize Him at first because He was no longer the same after crucifixion and resurrection. Many of us naturally long for the time when we can go back to how things were before this pandemic changed everything. But in my longing for the comfort of normalcy, I find myself wrestling with the possibility that maybe I’m not supposed to be the same. So much has been exposed within me that I really don’t like seeing. I have been confronted by the character flaws and patterns that have comfortably hidden themselves under the guise of the normal routine. They include the false belief that since I have less than many of my neighbors in my affluent suburb, I shouldn’t be expected to give much to others; my lack of action that makes me complicit in creating a society that is unequal and unjust for those with the least among us; my unconscious mindset that I am entitled to my shelter, food and healthcare. These are all so ugly to face and yet, I can only hope and pray that when these dark days lighten, I will have been transformed. Maybe, just maybe, parts of me will even be unrecognizable compared to who I have been in the past.
Yesterday the death toll due to COVID 19 in the United States surpassed the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. This grim reality can remain but a cold, hard statistic unless we allow ourselves to enter into the stories of those who have been lost and the grief of those left behind. The temptation to avoid the suffering and remain hardened so that we don’t feel the pain is real. Yet it is precisely in this moment in history that we are being given the gift of an enormous opportunity. May we allow for enough of the breaking to occur within ourselves so that Love Incarnate may be made known to us and leave us transformed in His wake.
“It is no longer in my power to change, correct or add to the past; for neither sages or prophets could do that. And so what the past has embraced I must entrust to God.
O present moment, you belong to me, whole and entire. I desire to use you as best I can. And although I am weak and small, you grant me the grace of your omnipotence.
And so, trusting in Your mercy, I walk through life like a little child, offering you each day this heart burning with love for Your greater glory.”Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul
It amazes me how I keep having to learn the same lessons over and over and over again. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever grow into an interior space where harsh words spoken by a loved one don’t wreck my inner peace within the short span of a few insensitively muttered syllables. This not infrequent experience of my over-sensitivity, it is all so humbling.
After an attempt at a nice family dinner outing last night to a fabulously hip local restaurant that serves up delicious Mexican food, I left the table at the end of our meal feeling deeply wounded. In fact I woke up today feeling as if I am bleeding from my heart and I don’t know how to make it stop. Truth be told, I really hate suffering and I am stumbling about to discern where it is I can find a bandage to cover this gushing laceration.
While I position one hand on my heart to try and control the flow, with the other hand I am searching for a weapon I can use to inflict pain in return to my daughter. And then those true, but annoying and inconvenient words of one of my favorite wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr, pop into my head: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” AND “The natural movement of the small self or ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.” AND “If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.” Ugh. I hate when my ego is confronted and backed into a corner. I drop both hands and cry out for help.
I know I’ve been here before. I know I’ve written about this before. I know, because every time I encounter a new trigger, it seems as if I am back to square one in the school of the spiritual life. I search my mind and ask myself, what is it I am supposed to remember? What have I learned when in this place before? My mind draws a blank; it’s still too busy seething with anger at my perceived state of victimization. Quickly I search my past blog posts to try to find the lessons imparted to me before when I was stuck in this exact kind of mess. I find many on this same topic, each with a slightly different presentation, but then I see this one from two years ago:
Mary reminded me of her heart; though pierced by a sword, it was able to burn bright with the fire of love. It could hold the pain and the love together without rejecting the other. Her heart, she reminded me, was broken over and over throughout her journey as a mother. Yet it was precisely in the breaking that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace grew with each new fissure. Recalling the traditional religious image of the Immaculate Heart, which before had no positive effect on me, it seemed as if she was extending it to me. For the first time, I saw its softness, its warmth, its healing grace overflowing to hold, comfort and heal me. I begged her to ask her Son to give me the strength in this moment to bear the pain and love together in the small space of my broken heart. Slowly, a peace came over me, the temptation to retaliate lost its power and I could breathe through the agony, just as I did when I was in labor with this same child.“https://eyeswideopentothesacred.com/2017/03/26/she-who-once-was-distant-has-now-drawn-near/
As I read it over again, it all starts coming back into my consciousness. The lessons: Bear the pain and love together, without rejecting the other; it is precisely in the breaking of the heart that its capacity to overflow with love and grace grows with each new fissure; in asking for divine help, I will be given the strength to breathe through the agony.
One of my plans for Lent was to show up with intentional Love and presence to the least of these I encounter. It has always seemed to me so much easier to be loving to the those I encounter who identify for me their exact need. If you tell me what you need I can respond accordingly. You are hungry? Can I buy you a sandwich and some chips for lunch? You are dying of cancer? When can I stop by and visit you? You had a rough day? Do you want to sit in my chair and vent about it? Being loving to my own flesh and blood who lashes out at me from the depths of some need that I don’t understand and may never even be informed about—that is tough as nails and I don’t like it.
We aren’t even a week in and what I imagined my Lent was going to look like is NOT LIKE THIS. Yet it is obvious to me that here, in this place of pain, resides yet another lesson I have to learn over and over and over again. Forget YOUR plans for Lent; God has re-imagined your plans and though they may not look like you want, they will be exactly what you need IF you but yield your will and ego to the One who knows best.
It is now clear to me this journey is not supposed to be about any neat and packaged responses to the least of these I encounter outside my home. Rather it must be about navigating difficult and rocky terrain that requires laborious inner work. It will be about choosing to hold love and pain together in the space of a small and broken heart. It will be about death to the ego in order that new life may be resurrected within me. It will be about offering a compassionate embrace to those who can be the most difficult disrupters of my ego and my ways and most likely at the most inconvenient and unexpected moments.
May I be given the grace to buckle in and embrace the glorious messiness prepared for me in these remaining days ahead so that I may arrive to my final destination of Easter not “perfected” by my plans, but made new by surrendering to His.
Very quickly, it became apparent to me that this was my happy place and I couldn’t imagine how it was that I had lived without it for so many years of my life. On the days I was able to carve out time for a run, the very minute I crossed the street and entered the forest, it was as if the burdens of everyday life were lifted and I experienced a sense of freedom and deep connectivity. Here, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I felt able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here I felt able to connect deeply to the One who had, it seemed. created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. These encounters we had in this Cathedral of Creation returned me to myself and connected me to a sense of my purpose. Such extravagant displays of nature in spring, summer and autumn led me to embrace the belief in our collective belovedness before our Creator.
Though hibernation remained a daily temptation every winter, I sought to continue some semblance of an active running schedule throughout the cold days. My great sadness, however, was the forest paths became most difficult and treacherous to navigate. The fear of twisting an ankle or enduring another ice-related injury that could end my active life kept me playing it safe on the plowed and salted streets of town. These runs which led me past houses and cars and stores never provided the same sense of freedom and connectivity that my beloved forest and river always did. Running along the road adjacent to the forest preserve, I would peer lovingly at the trees inside the forest, longing to immerse myself in their shelter and glory. I dreamed of the first days of spring when I could once again breach the wall and find all to be well with my soul.
This past fall, as colder and shorter days were approaching, I knew I needed to figure out a way to continue to immerse myself in this Cathedral of Creation even throughout the winter. There were some new challenges I was facing on the daily and without the perspective so generously imparted by the immersion in nature, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with them. After much thought, research and reflection, I made the decision to bring my running inside to the gym a few days a week and committed myself to walking outside a couple more. It is surprisingly easy to stay warm while running outside in the winter, but walking the 5 1/2 mile loop was an entirely different reality. It took a lot longer and seemed much colder. After some experimentation with layers, I finally figured out my standard configuration of warm gear and set out for a new adventure into a winter of walking in my happy place.
At first glance, the winter landscape seemed quite monochromatic and uninspiring to me. The shades of blah found in dead leaves and mud and faded wet grass were rather underwhelming. As a girl who has always been most captivated by the sea of colors liberally furnished by spring, summer and autumn, this was quite an adjustment. However, the more days I have spent walking the river path, my eyes have adjusted to see more clearly the subtle abundance of life shrouded in the dormancy of winter. And although there is a different energy found in nature at other times of the year, immersed in this winterscape, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly than when cooped up in my tiny house.
On one particularly difficult day in December, I found myself burdened with the weight of worry over my daughter’s current situation. Feeling quite helpless and unsure of what I could do to move her forward, I set out on one of my winter walks. A light layer of snow covered the trees and natural grasses that line the pathway. Coming into my focus was a tree with several buds springing forth from its many branches. Never before had I noticed this occurrence on trees in the winter, but I did on this particular day. It signaled to me that even though the worst of winter hadn’t yet come, and it would be many months before these buds would swell and flower, an abundance of life is promised to spring forth from this tree in due time. “So it is with your daughter” the still, small voice whispered deep within my heart. During subsequent bouts with fear and doubt, I have returned to those words time and again, believing that despite a time of dormancy, her time to blossom is coming. I need not try to cajole or force the growth, but instead, wait in joyful hope.
In January, after the wind had died down from a storm, I couldn’t wait to go outside into the freshly fallen snow. Much to my delight, as I entered into the forest, mine were the only human footprints to be seen. Yet all around were big footprints and little footprints and all the sizes in between. The wildlife who call this place home were quite busy, out and about, not allowing the storm to stop them. I felt privileged to join them and sensed a oneness as together we enjoyed the pure and clean covering which made everything seem new. Along the way I laughed at the goose footprints, triangular, clever and intelligently designed! For a while I followed the prints of what looked to belong to a raccoon. It had walked for over a mile down the very middle of the trail, out in the wide open, before veering off into the woods. I felt amused by the fearlessness of this creature in the absence of humanity, as if it was strutting down the runway at a forest fashion show. The elements of pure whimsy I observed in the aftermath of a winter’s snow filled me with deep and childlike joy. As I returned the way I had came and saw that mine still remained the only human footprints, I felt so blessed to experience such solitude in the midst of my busy life.
During a string of recent walks there remained a backdrop of gloomy and grey skies, without as much as a wink from the sun. In the absence of bright light or color, I began to notice the shapes and textures that surrounded me. There were the branches, unencumbered by leaves, showing off their naked and unique artistry. Some were wide and curvy. Others were narrow and straight. The river, it too was displaying its many different looks. In certain places along the journey it was frozen and placid. In others it was unfrozen and flowing with a gentle and soothing sound. At the end of my expedition, it could be seen showing off tall waves with peaks preserved in icy motion by the biting winds. Being awakened to all of these exhibitions of abundant life returned me to myself. It reminded me of the complexity of beauty there is to discover in each and every person, even those we would normally overlook, if we but pay close attention.
Stepping outside for my walk today, I was gleefully greeted by the bluest of skies and the warm glow of the sun. The slushy, melting snow yielded to each step I took and at times revealed the black asphalt of the path underneath. The faint taste of the earliest days of spring was in the air and I walked with a lightness in my stride. Basking in the warmth felt especially amazing and life-giving. After such incredible encounters this winter in the Cathedral of Creation, I felt pregnant with the expectation of what today’s experience would provide. Rounding my way through the boardwalks on the peninsula found at my halfway mark, I paused to gaze out at the river.
Hand in hand they entered the covered gazebo just behind me. A grandfather and his granddaughter who looked to be about 3 years old were joining me at the same lookout point. Peeking out from the top of his zip front jacket was her well-loved teddy bear, along for the adventure. Though I was close by, all he saw was her. He looked at her with incredibly deep love, as if she was the best thing that ever happened to him. “Look at them! Do you see them?” he said excitedly as he pointed at the river. “They’re Canadian Geese,” he explained with great joy. Then he picked her up and put her on his shoulder so she could get a better look. “There’s hundreds of them!” he exclaimed. “Can you hear them?” he asked. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, she responded with a resounding “Yes!”
In this moment it is all so clear to me the loving exchange I had just witnessed between this child and her grandfather is the same one I have been having all winter with my Creator. He looks at me with eyes who see a beloved child. He keeps lifting me up and giving me a higher vantage point with which to view more clearly all that has been made so intentionally. He keeps drawing my attention to the abundance of life to be found all around me, even though it might seem to be shrouded by the dormancy of winter. “Look! Do you see? he says excitedly. Can you hear? he asks. Here in this moment, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here in this moment, I feel able to connect deeply to the One who has, it seems, created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, I respond with a resounding “Yes!”
Aday or two before the dreaded time change back in the beginning of November, I threw out a few questions to my Facebook friends in regards to how to face the dreaded darkness that was about to descend upon us: What are your most successful coping strategies for adjusting and thriving? Or even just surviving? Is it just me or does this just seem to get harder every year? I am happy to report, my FB Friends did not disappoint and I received nearly twenty responses full of empathy and helpful suggestions. I waded through them all to find the common denominators and made my mind up to incorporate a few into my daily and weekly routine: Up my intake of Vitamin D; check! Take walks outside in nature; check! Get to the gym on the regular; check! Eat more nutritionally dense foods; check! As the days shortened in November and December, I honestly felt as if my newly incorporated practices were making for a better season than I had anticipated. I was thriving and productive…at least until January rolled around.
The Dawn of a New Decade: 2020
Returning home after work in the permeating gray gloom on most days and the darkness on others, all I could bring myself to do after crossing the threshold of the front door was to greet my family of humans and felines, change into my most comfortable pair of sweats and plop myself down on the sofa. From that point in the evening, the struggle to keep myself awake became the all-consuming challenge for the few hours until 8 p.m. or so. At that time, I could somehow justify to myself that it was time for bed. (Before you judge me, you should probably know that one of my cats does make a pretty forceful attempt to wake me at 3:30 a.m. each day ; )
In my nightly pursuit of alertness, I quickly discovered that if I tried to crack open the cover of one of the fifteen or so books I have in the TO READ pile next to my sofa, within a couple of pages not even toothpicks propped in my open eyes could keep my eyelids from closing. The thought of getting up to cook or clean or God forbid, leave the house to go shopping, was WAY too overwhelming to even consider. On most nights, my ace-in-the-hole go-to solution to stay awake was to consume the high adrenaline producing news of the day. With a simple click of the remote, I could get ticked off enough by the reporting of national political shenanigans to get my 2-3 hour buzz of wakefulness to cross the finish line until my 8 p.m bedtime. In the absence of any other truly meaningful productivity in my life outside of work, subconsciously I had convinced myself that becoming an angry couch activist who was tempted to hate certain politicians with every new bombshell of a story, was a good and worthwhile undertaking.
February: A Light LITERALLY Shines in the Darkness
January 2020 will go down tied with January 1914 as the third gloomiest on record. The Chicago area was officially just four minutes shy of nine straight days without sun thanks to a brief break in the clouds Friday morning.”CHICAGO (WLS)
After what felt like an eternal stretch of time without sunshine, about a week ago, the golden ball in the sky finally reappeared. Almost instantly, I felt reinvigorated. And with several days of light following the first one, shining into the darkest recesses of my psyche, the idea is beginning to occur to me that maybe, just possibly, the very thing I was consuming nightly during the past month has really been consuming me and not in any sort of positive way.
Why is it that I am so quick to give my power away to those who anger me for making the most vulnerable among us feel powerless and afraid? Why do I allow these individuals to make me into someone I don’t want to be? Why would I give anyone the power to make me hate them when a hateful and spiteful person is not who I want to become in this world?
In a recent interview I heard with Ruby Sales, an African-American social justice activist, she explained how the enslaved created spirituals to sing to remind them of the power they each had, even in the midst of slavery. I was especially captivated about what she had to say about hatred as addressed in one of the spirituals she was taught, “I Love Everybody in My Heart”:
“You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.”https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/
She went on to explain the difference between redemptive anger and non-redemptive anger:
Well, first of all, as you’ve just pointed out, love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/
With this dawning revelation, I entered the pew on Saturday night to worship and be inspired by the words of the Scriptures, instead of being agitated by non-redemptive angry words found in tweets and reactionary news stories and ugly back and forth discourse on social media. I longed to be reminded that I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. What I heard was life-giving and affirming. It caused me to recall the kind of person I want to become and the simple, yet challenging actions I can take which will lead me there.
Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own…then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed…If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”Isaiah 58:7, 8a, 9b-10
What became crystal clear to me that night is that by devouring the national news of polarization and vitriol, I have been allowing forces beyond my control to paralyze me in a state of non-redemptive anger, effectively devouring my ability to become an active participant in creating a community in which the vulnerable are cared for, where the marginalized are lifted up and all are treated with dignity.
Moving Forward in a Year of Election
There is a common theme that runs through the teachings of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that has always remained a difficult one for me to embrace. Many of her most quotable moments are summed up in this one:
It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta
On a recent return trip home from my early morning coffee run, I spied them. Mother and teenage son, walking on our street, bundled up in heavy layers in the pre-dawn darkness of a snowy and cold winter’s day. As my car grew closer, the outline of the tool in their hands grew clearer. Each of them was walking in opposite directions from their house, carrying a shovel with which to clear the driveways and walkways of elderly neighbors on our block.
Such a simple view of how we can make a difference in our world each day is not exciting, it isn’t adrenaline producing, nor does it ignite a sense of righteousness and need to feel important. Instead, loving those close to me is hard. It is humbling. It is self-sacrificial. Many times it doesn’t lead to any sort of special acknowledgment. In my experience these acts of love in my home and neighborhood and workplace don’t energize me, but more often times deplete me. Yet as I am promised by my Creator and shown by the examples of people in my lifetime, these simple ways of channeling my redemptive anger will effectively build up and transform those in my family, in my local community and ultimately in my world. They will even change me.
Each vote in the upcoming election, though an action of great importance, a right earned for us through the sacrifices of many brave men and women throughout the ages, remains but a tiny ripple of influence in a world ripe for a revolution of civility, kindness and redemptive love. However, I realize that in these remaining months before the election, I can pray for the courage and strength to choose what remains mine to choose every single day, now and forever.
May I choose acts of transforming love over acts of non-redemptive anger and hatred. May I choose to share my bread with the hungry instead of sharing vitriolic articles on social media about my adversaries. May I choose to shelter the oppressed instead of oppressing those with whom I disagree. May I choose to clothe the naked with dignity, instead of stripping the humanity from those whom I don’t trust. May I choose to support my own family and friends, even when we don’t see eye to eye on how things should be. And may the love I choose to preserve be that which preserves me. For it is then, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”
Good Day, Sunshine!
After investing a whole lot of time listening to the testimonies in the Impeachment Hearings for many days last week, this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in what might just be the antithesis of all that is happening between political parties in our nation’s capitol and between citizens of goodwill all around our country. I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, a poignant documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the long running children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Spending an hour and a half basking in the goodness of this man who was a kind of empathetic, imaginary friend in my early childhood, was nothing short of rejuvenating. Exposing myself to the light and love emanating from his soul was like coming home to a warm, cozy fire after being vulnerable to the elements on a raw and stinging cold winter’s day. Fred’s way in this world was the perfect antidote to counter the toxic affects of hatred, mistrust and disdain for truth.
Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed that it was far more important to live what you believe rather than just talk about it. I find this to be a refreshing stance in our world where the noise of words can sometimes become unbearable. In a sea of children’s programming, he stood out as counter cultural, at times even espousing the use of silence on his television program. For example, on one episode he set a timer for a minute and kept quiet so that he could teach children just how long this increment of time is. Though he filmed decades before our daily lives became inseparably intertwined with reliance upon advanced technology, the wisdom he shared is as needed now as it ever was. Silence, stillness, reflection, contemplation; these are all powerful tools in a well balanced life as we stand at the threshold of the new decade just ahead.
About fifteen minutes into the documentary, I hit pause and ran to grab my journal and favorite pen. Woven into the narrative were some nuggets of profound, yet simple truth I wanted to record for more thorough digestion at a later time. They were spoken by Fred in various clips of interviews throughout the years and collectively are a treasure trove of inspiration for such a time as this. The one that struck me most deeply was this:
I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are-I think that’s the greatest evil.”Fred Rogers
The greatest evil? I’ve been kicking that around in my head all day, applying Fred’s assessment to various events in our world that trigger my fiery Irish temper. And yep, at the end of the day it most definitely resonates with me. It seems that at the core of every crime against humanity this type of attitude exists. When persons are treated as less than, when human beings are denied the sense of dignity and good endowed to them by their Creator, this indeed is evil. And sadly we are witnesses to it every day, even hearing it from what once might have been considered unlikely sources of such harmful and nefarious conduct. We see it executed through lies spoken, through accusations tweeted, through callous generalizations propagated on social media, all serving to dehumanize the “other”. Slowly but surely there seems to an erosion of civility happening. It is stripping the sense of sacred presence found in humanity and devaluing individuals and groups of persons through the use of one word descriptors such as “animals”, “enemies”, “invaders”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”.
In complete contrast, Fred Rogers lived his life lifting up the marginalized, reverencing those who were seen as less than, putting a spotlight on their inherent beauty and uniqueness. He took on the controversial issues of the times in which he lived and over and over raised up persons who were commonly misunderstood, discriminated against and treated unfairly. He opened our eyes to see that these incredible human beings are more than anyone ever let them be. Mister Rogers imparted to all people a sense of dignity and respect, even to those who would go on to create parodies of his show. Though he may not have appreciated their humor, he never disparaged them as persons.
This perhaps is the aspect of Fred Roger’s life that challenges me the most. He personified Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel of Matthew: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What Jesus inherently knew and was addressing with this discourse is that there exists a great temptation to imitate the very behaviors I detest in my enemy, under the auspices of being righteous. When I give into this temptation, I myself become less than who I am, not because of another’s treatment of me, but by the way I choose to stoop below the dignity of who I was created to become. When instead I successfully resist devaluing my enemies through the use of one word descriptors, and choose to act with intentional love towards them, the cycle of hatred can be reversed.
No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and love to your neighbor and yourself.”Fred Rogers
As time marches forward toward the Winter Solstice and shorter days grow darker, I invite you to join me as I attempt to take up a virtual residence in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. It is a place where our daily words and actions can become a source of rejuvenation for others. It is a neighborhood where the light and love emanating from our souls can serve to melt misunderstandings found in the space between us. It is an environment where all people can be recognized as inherently good and treated with a sense of dignity and respect, even when they are considered to be enemies. There in Mister Roger’s neighborhood we can collectively become more than; together we can become repairers of a broken world.
Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?
A beautiful thought from the late, great Irish poet and theologian John O’Donohue: