The Lengthy Journey from Shattered Landscape to Green Pasture

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About a year ago, I was invited by my childhood friend Scott to attend an event in the town in which we both grew up, and to write an article about the experience for a magazine published in our local Catholic diocese, Christ is Our Hope. Never did I expect the event to leave such a deep impression on me, but it did. It was the culmination of a nearly 50-year journey in my life.

Even though the article was conceptualized and written quite awhile ago, it seems to me that many of the shattered landscapes we encounter today are potentially more devastating to humanity than when I was writing. Yet I am convinced we must never give up hope, for it is through each of us that the cracks and fissures in the space between us as humans can be filled. It is through us that the beauty of the human soul can be uplifted. It is through us that green pastures can grow. May we watch, wait and pray that we might be used as vessels on the path toward this transformation.

Lastly, I want to express my gratitude to Scott, for inviting me to attend the 32nd Annual Wheaton Leadership Prayer Breakfast and for sharing his story with me; to the editor of Christ is Our Hope, Carlos Briceño, for being an inspiration and for encouraging me to tell my story; and to my Protestant brothers and sisters for truly making a positive difference in my journey as a Catholic.

To read The Lengthy Journey from Shattered Landscape to Green Pasture, go to page 17 in the August 2018 issue of Christ is Our Hope Magazine.

Against all Odds, Nothing is Impossible with God: An Enduring 56 Year Old Love Story

 

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A Letter to Chip and Joanna Gaines

Dear Chip and Joanna,

On February 27th my mom and dad, Chuck and Sue Lohenry, celebrated their 56th Wedding Anniversary. I wish you could know them, not only because they are two of your biggest fans, but because they truly brighten this world by their love for one another, their family and friends. (They actually remind me of a way older version of the two of you!) Their love is captivating; it is alluring in the way in which it draws you into something deeper and bigger, something exuberantly alive in the space between them. While the impact of such a love is truly immeasurable, they do regularly brag on the fruits of it, including three kids (I, their only daughter, am the baby and the favorite, wink wink!) and ten grandchildren, who range in age from 14 to 30 years old. Although their grandchildren are spread out as far west as California, as far east as Japan, as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as Arizona, whenever they are able, each one makes it back to Grandma and Papa’s home for the chance to reunite, and always for a game of Shanghai Rummy.  Around the table they can be loud or quiet, they can trash talk about their card skills or give each other a hard time about taking too long, but the real reason they gather is to bask in the circle of warm and unconditional love that exists whenever they are in the presence of their grandparents.

My parent’s marriage definitely hasn’t been a cake walk. From the start, they chose one another despite all the odds against them. My mom, within a span of a few short years had joined and left the convent, married her first husband, was deserted by her first husband, found herself as a single mom to her son, Todd and was again living with her mother. Back in the late 1950’s, it wasn’t socially acceptable to be a divorcee with a small child. But my dad wasn’t deterred. He still clearly recalls the moment he saw her downtown Libertyville, Illinois, walking with her son’s hand in hers, her head held high. To this day, he says that he was captivated by her poise, her pride and her long, beautiful legs.

Things got serious quickly and my dad knew he had found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Three times, he asked her to marry him and three times she answered “no”. It wasn’t for lack of love for him. It was just that she was concerned because she wasn’t free to get married in the Catholic Church until her annulment was granted, not to mention that she was hesitant for fear of making another mistake. Things cooled down a bit as she waited for news about her annulment to come from Rome. Yet they still regularly connected at church on Sundays and at the Fairhaven Bowling Alley, the place my dad managed. Then one fateful night changed everything. It was February 26, 1962.  My mom went to visit my dad at work. She had finally changed her mind and asked him to find the nearest state that waived the three day waiting period, so that they could run off and get married that night! Chuck was ecstatic! He immediately called a friend who recommended they head in the direction of Dubuque, Iowa. He called another friend, who happened to be a jeweler, and asked him to leave a couple of wedding bands in his mailbox. He then closed down the bowling alley, picked up the rings and left to pick up his bride-to-be.

In excerpts of a letter he wrote to my mom, he describes his drive to her house that night and the day that followed:

“All this time I am thinking, does she really mean it? What if she changes her mind? It was bitter cold and you thought I had changed my mind, so you were on your way back into your house when I pulled up.

You got in the car and our lifelong adventure began. Route 20 was not a four lane divided highway, but we found our way to Dubuque and were sitting outside the courthouse when it opened. I went in to check on things and determined that they had just changed the law the previous summer and now required a three day wait. I came out with a smile on my face and gave you the bad news. I had a plan B in mind. We could go back to Illinois, apply for a license and get married on the following Saturday. You were freaked out and told me that if we didn’t get married that day, you knew that you could not defy your mother. You then asked me if I knew anyone at the Lake County Courthouse who could waive the waiting period. I drove like a mad man to Waukegan, spoke to the county clerk who waived the waiting period, sent us to a doctor for our blood test and met us across the street where a justice of the peace married us. I had a very scruffy black beard and neither of us had showered for over 24 hours. Then came the hard part.

You had left a note for your mother, but she thought you had gone to Mass. Needless to say, she was hurt and disappointed and glared at us as we came to pick up Todd. I don’t remember if words were exchanged, but I do know that I was glad to get out of her presence at that precise moment. We found a motel and then I left the two of you to go and bowl in a singles tournament that I won that night. The trophy reads ‘February 27, 1962…What a great start to a marriage!’”

And that is the story of how my parents met and married-going against social norms, going against their parents’ wishes, going against their Church’s teaching, but following where they believed God was leading them-and started their love affair of a lifetime.

They suffered much in the first year of their married life. Dad had a massive stroke at age 25, and a couple of months later, they lost their first child together, Charles, Jr. who was stillborn at full-term. Thankfully, the year of silence from their families ended when both came around with the support and love my parents needed. My mom’s annulment was granted from Rome and they had their marriage blessed in the Catholic Church. As soon as it was possible, Todd was adopted by my dad and loved like one of his own, because as he says in his own words, “The day I first saw Sue and Todd, I fell in love with both of them.” And that bowling trophy? It is still proudly displayed on a shelf in their home.  

Four years ago, my dad suffered a traumatic brain injury, one he shouldn’t have survived. With prayer, love and support, he once again came back from near death and fought with all his strength for months to rejoin mom on their journey of love. When he was able to speak clearly again, he was even sweeter than before. If I had a dollar for every time he introduced Mom to doctors, nurses and even strangers as “my beautiful wife, the love of my life”, I would be abundantly wealthy! His ardent love for her is so endearing, it is the stuff that awesome romance novels are written about (think: The Notebook). She reciprocates this love every single day with the way she stays at his side, treats him with the utmost dignity and respect and celebrates even the smallest steps of progress.

Post-brain trauma, I made a commitment to see my parents weekly, so as make a point to enjoy whatever time we have left together. Faithfully each Sunday morning the three of us gather for “Breakfast Club”. During prayer before our meal, Dad makes sure to thank God for the two loves of his life, Mom and me! He then points to the bracelet on his wrist inscribed “Beloved” and points to my mom. When I ask him about the highlight of his days, he says it is any time he spends with the love of his life, but most especially he enjoys sitting side by side on their reclining sofa, watching old and new episodes of Fixer Upper on repeat, without tiring. I think subconsciously, he sees a reflection of a younger version of himself and my mom in the two of you and the way in which you love one another. On a regular basis, he tells me that one day he would like to meet Chip and Joanna Gaines. I think it is adorable that at 81, the only thing left on his bucket list is to road trip to Waco, Texas to meet the two of you!

While I know you probably get a million requests like this, I would love to take this trip to Waco with my parents, in honor of their 56th Wedding Anniversary, if they could meet you, even for just a couple of minutes. I know my request is against all odds, but just like a 56 year old love story with rocky beginnings and difficult obstacles to overcome, I believe nothing is impossible with God.

Thank you for your consideration of my request! May God bless you as you continue to write your own enduring love story.

 

Blessings,

Lisa Lohenry Gilligan
P.S. I’ve attached photos of them in 1962 and in 2016 (when their beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series ; )

She Who Once was Distant Has Now Drawn Near

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Immaculate Heart of Mary by Smith Catholic Art

Ten years, six months, and one day after Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, I was born into this world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, simply speaking, a council is called in the Roman Catholic Church to gather religious leaders so they might settle doctrinal issues. In 1959, there had not been such an assembly in nearly 100 years. However, Pope John XXIII believed it was right to convene a council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air to the Church.

As a result of the Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, there was a big shift in the day-to-day spiritual experience of your average Catholic. Maybe one of the most significant results of the council was henceforth, Mass was to be celebrated in the primary language spoken in one’s country. And instead of having his back to the congregation, the priest now faced them during the celebration of Eucharist. The regular people in the pew were now being included in the celebration in more ways, communicating their participation as a vital component of the Mass, and of the Church as a whole.

Being born to two cradle Catholics just 4 years after the implementation of Vatican II, my Catholicism was certainly formed by the changes it brought and my parents’ complete and welcome acceptance of them. There are many theologians and faithful Catholics who argue the years after the implementation of the Council were disastrous and led to problems experienced later in the Church. Yet in my memories, it was quite exciting to witness my parents embrace their faith in a whole new way, so different from their upbringing in the Church of the 1930’s and 1940’s. They became involved in ministries of the Church and their participation filled them with a joy I found quite captivating. From an early age, I wanted what they had in terms of the love and fulfillment they found in their Roman Catholic faith, post-Vatican II. As understood by the pendulum effect, surely some of the richness of the pre-Vatican II Church was lost to me being born in the time I was. Yet on the other side of the coin, as I grew older, there was a realization I was given the gift of an entirely different kind of richness exactly because I was born in the time I was.

My beloved grandmother, nicknamed “Mamoo”, had a deep love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There was a story told in our family about a time when post-surgery her heart stopped and she had a near death experience. She saw her own body lying beneath her with the doctors working to revive her and from a distance she witnessed the Blessed Mother, emanating bright light, warmth, and love, nearing closer to her. Before they could meet, she was back in her own body and alive. I was only eight years old when she died, but I never forgot the story. I didn’t really feel close to the Blessed Mother but wished one day I might know her like Mamoo did. In the swing of the pendulum, there wasn’t a significant emphasis placed on Mary and the prayer of the Rosary in my childhood faith development. I don’t think this was a conscious decision by my parents, but a result of the excitement of embracing other aspects of their faith dormant until unleashed by Vatican II.

One of the most exciting and inspirational aspects of faith my parents embraced during those years was developing their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Upon their return from a marriage retreat, I witnessed firsthand what is described in the Bible in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 12: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” Clearly my father was a new man. As he described it, he encountered Jesus in a deeply vulnerable way and felt unconditionally loved by God, instead of just intellectually knowing he was. The old dad had passed away and he began living in a way that filled our home with love, acceptance, and encouragement. I sensed the Holy Spirit was hanging around our house now and I liked it. I liked it a lot. They joined with others in our local parish who had encountered God in this personal way and they gathered weekly to pray and support one another. These people became extended family and in their presence, I always sensed the closeness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To be around them felt as if I was basking in the warm sunshine of the early days of summer, but the rays consisted of unconditional acceptance and love which I allowed to penetrate my being. This was the richness given to me by the Church of Vatican II. It was the gift which led me to a small Catholic university in Ohio where I could study Theology in the hopes of using my life in service to God and continuing the renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.

Upon arriving on campus in 1989, I was surrounded by peers who like me, had encountered the Holy Spirit in their lives and were on fire for their faith. Yet there were others who seemed very alien to me. The center of their faith in Jesus Christ was very much intertwined with their love for his Mother, Mary. In recent years there had been apparitions of the Blessed Mother happening in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. As a result, a great renewal in praying the Rosary and increased devotion to Mary was occurring, probably the biggest surge since the onset of Vatican II, and I found it difficult to embrace. This really bothered me. I wanted a relationship with the mother of Jesus. It seemed to me that it should be natural to love the woman who loved Jesus into being and throughout his life, until the end. Who else knew him better? If I got to know her, I could know him better. And so I tried. After getting reacquainted with the prayer of the Rosary, I joined in its recitation weekly with a group of woman. It is a prayer which invites one to contemplate several important moments in the life of Jesus while reciting the Hail Mary. Faithfully, I did this; week after week, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, but still she felt strangely distant to me. One semester I was required to complete a course in Mariology, taught by one of the world’s most highly regarded Mariologists. I should have finished that course inspired ever more by Mary’s role in the life of Jesus, and fully cured of my lukewarm feeling, but I didn’t. To me, she seemed too perfect to be relatable.

For many years I hid this secret as I was ashamed to admit that I really didn’t have a devotion to Mary, and preferred almost any other type of prayer over the Rosary. Convinced that to share this struggle would certainly draw judgment from fellow students, I remained silent. Of course, I continued to revere her externally, such as placing flowers at her statue on my wedding day, and saying the right prayers and singing the right songs on the feast days which celebrate her. Internally, however, she seemed so far away from my heart. To mentally obsess about what was wrong with me, the Catholic from birth, the Theology major, and later the Church worker who didn’t have a relationship or even a warm affinity for the Mother of Jesus served only to worsen the divide. Eventually, I decided to shift my focus off what I was not, and instead tried to appreciate who God had made me be, imperfections and all. I simply let go of my fixation upon my non-relationship with the Blessed Mother.

Becoming a mother at the age of 31 instantly proved to be the biggest source of both joy and suffering in my life. And the same reality continues to this day, 16 years later. No amount of advance preparation could ever have readied me sufficiently for its plethora of challenges; good and bad. Its daily scenarios bring me to my knees and humble me more than I ever imagined I would be or could be. And it has been on those exact days, the ones when I find myself so very close to the dirt of the earth, bowed low, crying out for guidance and wisdom and strength, I sense the distance between her and I narrowing.

One of the great paradoxes I didn’t understand as a younger person is the experience of suffering and brokenness is the great leveler of humanity. And all mothers suffer. This suffering looks and feels different at all the stages of our child’s growth and development, but it never ends; not ever. Therefore, there is a capacity for women to deeply bond with one another, especially when we are vulnerable enough to admit we don’t have it figured out and it is as hard as rocks and some days we don’t even know how we are going to make it through with our sanity intact. It was through this lens I began reading the stories of Mary in the Scriptures anew. No longer seeing her as perfect and unrelatable, instead, I began to see in account after account how time after time she suffered in her role as mother.

In the scriptural account of the Annunciation, when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, it describes her as being greatly troubled. In response to the news of conception, she was terrified. She was young and unmarried and no amount of advance preparation could have ever readied her for the plethora of challenges ahead. She was a source of scandal in her community and it took the intervention of another angel to convince her betrothed to marry her. In the impending moments before the birth of her child, she again found herself in challenging circumstances. Travel via donkey while 9 months pregnant is arguably less than ideal. Giving birth in a stable seems downright cruel. Days later, upon presenting Jesus in the temple, an old man took her baby into his arms and said that this child was destined for the fall and rise of many and she, a sword would pierce. Shortly thereafter, she had to flee the country of her birth and become an immigrant in a strange land to escape the plot to kill her newborn.

When he was just a child, she lost him for days in the city. When found, with seeming unconcern for his mother’s suffering, he explained he was about doing his Father’s business. Tradition tells us that while he was still young, she became a widow. The responsibility of raising a son was now hers alone. At the wedding of Cana, when out of concern for her friends who were hosting the celebration, she asks him for help his first response is almost a rebuke: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”

As she sees him fulfilling his life’s mission during the years of his public ministry and positive news about him is spreading, her nearest relatives and neighbors still doubt the validity of the good news and question how it could be so. The carpenter is doing these things? How could this be the same Jesus they knew? Later stories are communicated to Mary of many who are rejecting her son, including the leaders of their very own Jewish faith. Frightening accounts are shared with her of some who want to throw him off a cliff. Then she hears the tragedy of her cousin Elizabeth’s son John, who was jailed and beheaded for supporting Jesus. As his ministry culminates, she witnesses Jesus be unjustly judged and sentenced to death. At the very end, still, by his side, she walks with him the way of the cross to his crucifixion. At his feet she stays, watching the flesh of her flesh, bloody and bruised and suffocating until he breathed his last breath. I am struck by how much sadness, heartbreak, and suffering she had to endure; more than any one woman should ever have to bear. Yet in the history of salvation, it is she who is identified as one full of grace; first by the angel Gabriel and later by generations upon generations of people. Even those who are not of a Catholic or Christian tradition honor her as such.

The advent of adolescence in our household came swiftly and without much warning. It seems as if overnight the winds shifted, turned bitterly cold and took much of the sweetness and warmth away from our parent-child relationship. Its intermittent moments of unexpected intensity are only exasperated by the fact that we haven’t done this before and our daughter is our only child. There are days when the foundation we worked so long to build feels as if it is going to crumble right beneath our feet and others when the walls might fall down and crush us. One such moment happened in recent days. I had read the signs and knew a perfect storm was brewing. I gave my daughter warnings so as to avert the potential tempest. She was given ample time to correct and make amends for some poor choices, but none were made. Time was up. Out of love and concern, I allowed her to experience the consequences of choices she made. In that moment, everything blew up.

The sheer force of her response rendered me feeling breathless, utterly rejected, unloved and mocked, by the flesh of my flesh, the one for whom I would die without hesitation because it is in my nature because I am her mother. False accusations and angry words were hurled at me, both to my face and behind my back on her social media accounts. And for whatever reason, this time it hurt more deeply than ever before. It was raw and very difficult to hold. I wanted to lash back; I wanted to make the pain stop, but to do so would only perpetuate the cycle and make everything worse. In desperation, I cried out to God. And in that moment, she who is full of grace drew nearer than ever before.

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.

She who once was distant has now drawn near. In the depth of our new bond and in the warmth of her presence I sense it is precisely in the breaking of my heart that its capacity to overflow with divine love and grace is growing with each new fissure.

United with you, we will be one with God.

United with you, we will be open to the will of God.

United with you, we too will feel the mystery of Christ, alive within us.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

-excerpt from Prayer to the Mother of God, Mary by Reverend Edward Hays

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

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A couple of years ago, during the same time of the year in which we find ourselves now, I wrote a blog post about the contrasts found in nature, which also seem to mirror the contrasts found in the experiences of our lives. I am grateful for the opportunity given me by Carlos Briceño, editor of Christ is Our Hope Magazine to revisit the post and update it to be relevant for today.

During the process of revision, it struck me how the same words written then still hold true today. Many of my loved ones are still suffering; watching them endure heart-wrenching experiences is still painful and there are days when I still feel utterly helpless to relieve their suffering. Yet these same written words also hold true—life’s moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness still can serve as the lifeless backdrop for a glorious unfolding to come. May we keep our eyes wide open so we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew.

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding as featured in the March 2017 edition of Christ is Our Hope Magazine.

 

Cherishing the Wait for the Fulfillment of Hope: What the Chicago Cubs Taught Me About Advent this Year

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There have only been four times in the last twenty-two years when Christmas landed on a Sunday. The reason I take notice of this is because in my twenty-two year career working for the Catholic Church, that is the number of occasions when I had four complete weeks of Advent in which to complete the gargantuan number of tasks required of me during this season. Normally, December, in addition to being the usual kind of chaotic at home, is a whole other kind of crazy at work. There tends to be lots of extra duties, all with shortened deadlines and while it is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, I normally find myself facing it with a dreadful sense of angst. This is a terrible thing to be thinking in my head. Admitting it publicly? Worse yet! The most discouraging aspect is while I truly believe in the meaning of Christmas, allowing it to have power in my life in the midst of the chaos is a mighty battle.

This year was no exception. Cyber Monday quickly brought me to an unusally high level of panic that steadily rose as my email inbox kept filling up with coupon codes and chances to save. As I sorted through them and deleted the ones that weren’t appealing, the inbox continued to replenish itself with more and more promises of savings unlike ever before! The need for order and control in my life reared its ugly head and this deluge of information threw me into a tailspin.

Yet if I am honest, the nosedive began weeks prior to Cyber Monday. If I had to pinpoint its start, it was at the very beginning of November when I set off to shop for an event I was to host later in the month. In my search for some autumn inspired home goods, upon entering most stores, I was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of bright lights and sparkly Christmas goods. Finding the muted tones of browns and oranges, teals and burgundies almost merited the creation of a search party. When finally they were found, these remnants of fall merchandise were picked over and already marked on clearance!

Shortly afterwards, there was the day when my first grouping of preset radio stations in the car were playing commercials, so I switched over to the second set. Lo and behold, one of the preset stations was playing Christmas songs—yes, in the first days of November. And then there was the next day, just after we switched to daylight savings time. I was driving to pick up my husband from the train station. Normally it would be light outside, but now it was dark and immediately I noticed the many houses adorned with Christmas lights. While it does get cold here in December and I quite admire the wise planning of those who use one of the unexpectedly warm days of November to check this job off the list, I felt angry when confronted with all the lights. Must they be lit three weeks before Thanksgiving? It was as if all of the forces of the external world were conspiring to make me feel the dread and pressure and chaos of celebrating Christmas NOW!! I truly resented it because I felt as if I had not even had any time to anticipate its arrival.

When counting my blessings this year at Thanksgiving, I found myself deeply grateful to have been raised a Chicago Cubs fan from the cradle. Memories of my early childhood are sprinkled with a plethora of hot and humid summer days, when we gathered in the “Rec Room” (the coolest spot in the house) to listen to the voice of radio announcer Jack Brickhouse give us the play by-play of the game. Occasionally, Mom would drag us three kids into the city  where we would then catch the “L” train to the north side. Wrigley Field was larger than life. It was magnificent; a place where dreams loomed large.

Recent weeks and days leading up to their big win after 108 years were thick with possibility and power. One cannot explain it adequately with words. Some of the special commercials and video compilations came close, but being immersed in it was nothing short of other-worldly. Even 45 miles west of Wrigley Field, out here in the suburbs, there was a magical feeling among the people, everywhere you went. It delighted the senses. It was as if you could touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through the hearts and veins of a people waiting for the fulfillment of a long-held desire. I remember thinking in those days how blessed I was to experience the fruitfulness of what waiting can accomplish in the mind, heart and soul. It strengthened the character of Cubs fans as they persevered in supporting a not-good-enough team for 39,420 days; it bonded generations and families together with a common purpose and longing. The anticipation, the wait; it brought such meaning to every moment we spent drawing closer to the arrival of the day of redemption to the north side.

No matter where life took you in those days, you couldn’t help but overhear many a person’s story of their wait for the fulfillment of this hope.You heard it being discussed among a group of strangers standing in line to check out at the grocery store, at the Starbucks between barista and regular customer; heck, I even had lifelong Sox fans wish my team the best and admit their love affair with baseball was actually born at Wrigley Field. There were stories of the 108 year old woman who wanted to see the Cubs win before she died, of the man who brought a radio and a folding chair to his father’s graveside so that they could listen to the games of the World Series together. This collective wait; it was a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration was born into an otherwise divisive world.

The climax of the wait was experienced in, what I will argue as, THE MOST incredible World Series known to baseball fans. The ups and downs of each game in the series were almost unbearable. And the rain delay in Game 7? It had us all hanging on the edge of our seats. I don’t even think that the greatest script writer of all time could have written a better ending to this story. The recording of the eruption of joy heard outside Wrigley Field (an entire 350 miles away from the actual scene of the victory) at the very moment when we clinched the title of World Champions will never cease to awaken me to the unimaginable miracle that occurred that day.

The day of the Chicago Cubs victory parade found my husband, my big brother and I gathering at the home of our almost-80 year old parents to watch the coverage on TV. The crowds were rumored to be large and predictions of traffic nightmares were ominous. We chose to bunker down in their house to rejoice in the gift of redemption given to our team. Amidst the delicious smells and tastes of famous Portillo’s sandwiches, hot dogs and fries, each of us with a cool, refreshing Budweiser in our grip, we witnessed as 5 million people showed up to celebrate, supposedly making it the 7th largest gathering in human history. The sound of the crowd in Grant Park collectively singing, “Go, Cubs, Go!” was something to behold. What once had been a prayer of yearning, became the melody of our team’s salvation.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself wanting to break open the power of what we had just experienced. There was a deep thirst within to unpack a lesson that might have bigger implications for my life. Since Advent was beginning, my thoughts drifted to the people who lived long before me, to those whose anticipation for something so much greater than a Cubs World Series Championship must have seemed endless, to those who spent a couple thousand years holding out hope for a Savior. I could scarcely imagine what the dawn of the Day of Redemption must have felt like for those who, for generations upon generations upon generations, had waited in joyful hope for Emmanuel, God with us. The fulfillment of such a wait must have been astonishingly epic.

As these thoughts continued to percolate, it became clear to me —there is something truly powerful about the wait which serves to expand us. It readies us to appreciate, in a potentially profound way, the fulfillment for which we long. In the midst of this clarity, I committed to cherish this year’s wait for Christmas. In one of those rare years when I was going to have four full weeks of Advent, I decided to slowly savor each of the 28 days and allow them to expand me. Thankfully, the rituals of my faith tradition encourage me to be entirely counter cultural at this time of year. They teach me to sit in the darkness and stillness and to wait. Despite the pressures I originally felt weighing upon me when I opened my inbox or turned on the radio or drove by houses adorned with lights inside and out, I consciously let them go and instead chose to refrain from the rush to get the lights setup outside my house or to listen to Christmas tunes or to cut down the Christmas tree just yet.While the fact remained there were still going to be extra tasks at home and at work, there were also going to be some extra days in which to finish them and the deadlines weren’t as overwhelming as usual. There stood 28 sunrises and sunsets between me and the moment when the fulfillment of hope would arrive.

Entering into church on the First Sunday of Advent, I experienced the plainness of the environment to be a striking contrast to everywhere else I found myself at this time of year. It was stripped bare of its usual beauty, leading my focus to the simple, unadorned green wreath at the front, illuminated only with the light of one single candle. This simplicity was absolutely captivating to my soul. The cacophony of loud, joyful Christmas jingles heard in the marketplace was replaced with quiet, reflective songs all expressing the common theme of longing for light, for redemption and meaning. The process and the power of anticipation replaced the immediacy of the need to be celebrate Christmas right now.

This became the chosen experience I allowed to set the tone for the rest of my time of anticipation. Each of these new days of Advent I have entered with full intention and permission to immerse myself in the quiet, in the stillness, in the darkness that preceded the Winter Solstice. Slowly and steadily the anticipation has grown. Slowly and steadily the luminosity of my Advent wreath has brightened each week with the lighting of another candle. Slowly and steadily the tasks of readying have been accomplished. Slowly and steadily, the sense of hope has increased within and my soul has been expanded. Here on the cusp of the Christmas Vigil, I can touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through my heart and my veins as I wait for the fulfillment of a long-held desire: to receive anew the gift of Love Incarnate. Found in the unlikely guise of a babe in the manger, this Love, if received into the open spaces of my soul, has the power to change me. It has the potential to make the unlikely guise of my life a place where He may be found; a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration may be born into my otherwise divisive world.

Tonight as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, what once was our prayer of yearning will become the melody of our salvation. And if we could listen to a recording of the eruption of joy heard in the heavens at the very moment of His birth, I am certain it would never cease to awaken us to the unimaginable miracle which continues this day. Merry Christmas!

O hush the noise and cease the strife
And hear the angels sing

Glory to God in the highest
Glory to God evermore
Good news, great joy for all
Melody breaks through the silence
Christ, the Savior is born!
Jesus, the love song of God!
Jesus, the love song of God!

You’re the love song
You’re the love song
You so loved the world
You’re the love song”

Midnight Clear (Love Song) by Chris Tomlin

 

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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It was at a very young age when I first began to hate physical activity. If I had to pinpoint the year, it was probably in first grade, circa 1975, when I was introduced to the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. It was a yearly assessment that consisted of crunches, pull-ups,the V-Sit Reach, a couple of sprints and the event that most tortured my soul, year after year, the dreaded mile run. This annual test was created in the late 1950’s by a guy who was concerned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America”. During President Kennedy’s term in the White House, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness created a Physical Fitness Curriculum for schools. Kennedy himself wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated in support of the program. One was entitled, “The Soft American”.

Children with low muscle tone, soft Americans; the words paint a descriptive picture. I could have been the poster child for the “why” such a program was needed in the schools of America. Apparently when I was being knit in the womb and the Creator was dealing out the metabolism genes, I was dealt a bad hand (at least according to the standards of the culture into which I was born). Pictures of me at the beach in my early years reveal a round and happy girl. Best of all, she is blissfully unaware her chubbiness, considered cute and sweet at 2 years of age, will one day soon become the source of lifelong struggle.

At five it became glaringly apparent that I was considered a not-so-good kind of different in comparison to others. In the kindergarten classroom, I didn’t measure up favorably in regards to the physical attributes girls are taught to highly esteem. But it was the day each year I was forced to run that mandatory mile when I felt at my most vulnerable. There was no way to hide my inability to keep up with the others. Finishing dead last, even after trying my hardest, was utterly demoralizing. Running became the embodiment of everything I despised about the unmanageable parts of my life. I felt as if I was a helpless victim of its mockery.

Born forth from these early experiences of failure, shame & embarrassment was the dominating need to control my environment and the people in it. In her article, “8 Signs You’re a Control Freak”, Dr. Shelley Prevost identifies some of the exact beliefs and behaviors I developed to function in life. Over time they grew in power and succeeded in achieving total control over me.

  1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over. Check! [√]
  2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either. Check! [√]
  3. You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.Check! [√]
  4. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you. Check! [√]

To think I somehow navigated through life in this condition, my soul confined by these heavy shackles, all the while managing to graduate from college, meet and marry my husband and become a mother; it still shocks and surprises me. But truth be told, it came at a high price. My husband felt judged and shamed; my anxiety was completely out-of-control and avoiding it dictated my every move; I was exhausted at working tirelessly to please everyone in the hopes I might be accepted and loved. The toxic repercussions of living as a control freak had infiltrated my mental, emotional and spiritual life. And the culmination—I could no longer hide that I was also in the worst physical shape of my life. The report following the mandatory physical in the pursuit of life insurance was filled with ugly words such as “obese”, “high cholesterol”, “elevated blood sugar”. It confirmed my worst fears and made me again feel like a helpless victim of life’s circumstances.

In the midst of this mess, my old enemy had the gall to show up into my life without an invitation. I hadn’t encountered it since the last Physical Fitness Test was done Senior year of high school. Out of nowhere, my husband began running, day and night, for miles on end. He had decided to train for his very first marathon after a long hiatus from running and became unstoppable. In the process, without even making major alterations to his eating patterns, he dropped 60 lbs. and the transformation wasn’t only physical. There was a confidence that returned to him and an overall sense of well-being pervaded his days.

Two years and two marathons later, living with this invader in my home as a regular part of his daily routine served to slightly weaken my defensive stance towards it. I too was looking for a way to achieve health and transformation, but nothing I tried seemed to be working. It was the one last thing I had not embraced. Coincidentally while in the midst of an interior wrestling match, I was reminded of the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers, but one day while riding on his horse, he met a leper on the path. Rather than turn away as he was naturally inclined to do and had always done, he conquered his aversion, stopped, climbed off his horse and embraced the leper, giving him alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

Desperate to be freed from the shackles of perfectionism and control, longing for sweetness of soul and body, I conquered my aversion. Rather than turn away, as I was naturally inclined to do and had always done, I climbed off my horse and I embraced that which I most abhorred—running. I gave it alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Continued…

 

The Destination is the Purest of Love; the Vehicle is Togetherness

Recently, I had the privilege to witness my oldest nephew, Keegan, marry the love of his life, Emma. Theirs is a union of two outstanding, salt-of-the-earth persons whose lives as individuals have made a positive difference in this world and whose togetherness will most certainly transform it. I was humbled and honored to offer the following reflection at their Marriage Ceremony. (photos by the amazing, wildly-talented and highly recommended Sandra Armenteros)

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Despite what you might think, not all of the best love stories have a magical beginning. Keegan and Emma met when they were just 13 and 11.  Emma was “forced” to play on the home school basketball team, because there was a need for more kids. At that first basketball practice, in a sweaty gymnasium, filled with the unforgettable fragrance of adolescent stench is where their story began. Magical? Not so much. Quirky and memorable? Definitely!

As the story continued, it contained ingredients that could create the plot for a good teenage flick–the highs of the crush phase, the lows of the he/she only-likes-me-as-a-friend phase, the coming of age experience of attending one another’s high school dances, the experience of discovering their own identities at colleges far apart from one another, all building up to the crescendo of their first real date as adults in December of 2013. But the most surprising component of the story? Almost the entire time they’ve known each other, they have lived in separate states. Their story is one of an enduring, long-distance relationship.

Recently, I was captivated by a post Emma wrote on Facebook, after she had just dropped Keegan at the airport:

“After living in separate states and driving back and forth every weekend for years, and spending the last 12 months flying across the country from Chicago to Virginia to California, it’s hard to believe this may have been our last trip before we get married and finally commit to living in just one place!”

And that is where we find ourselves now.  This day whose details have consumed so much of the very little time you’ve had together in this last year has finally arrived. Right now, I invite you to pause, take a deep breath and be present to this very moment.

To prepare for today, I sent Keegan and Emma some questions to complete so that I could get a deeper insight into what is at the heart of their relationship. Emma, Keegan wrote of how he is inspired by your independence and strength. He considers you his best friend and he described how your love and patience has helped him to become a better person towards others. Keegan, Emma wrote of how she is inspired by your love for family, your ability to dream big dreams and your strong work ethic that leads you to set a goal and achieve it. She described how your adventurous spirit pushes her out of her comfort zone and allows her to experience life more fully.

When asked to reflect upon what you see as the greatest strength of your union, you both made reference to your shared desire to actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. This is what you identified as the guiding principle at the heart of the decisions you make as individuals and as a couple.

Yet it was something Emma wrote about the decision to get married I found most powerful. She said,

“We are choosing to become something beyond and greater than ourselves as individuals”.

Contained within these words is the wisdom that the experience of true love expands us. Togetherness is the vehicle you are choosing to take on this journey whose destination is love in its truest and purest form. It is in and with and through this togetherness that you will be expanded beyond who you think you are, into your fullest selves and all you are meant to become.

In this vehicle of togetherness, you will become greater than yourselves. This may happen exactly in some of the ways you hope and dream it will. It may happen as you cheer one another on to accomplish goals you have set for yourselves and check things off your life’s great bucket list. It may happen when your joint efforts to better the world have done just that and you are able to tangibly experience it. It may happen if you are blessed with children and you see your love, now living outside of you, dwelling in a new human soul you co-created with the Creator.

This may also happen in some of the most unexpected ways you might not be able to imagine. It may happen when you’re face to face with the absolute worst parts of yourself and you hear the words from the other, “I love you, even with your imperfections.” It may happen when some things you dreamed of don’t work out as you had planned and you say to the other, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. I am in this for the long haul with you.” It may happen when you’ve been deeply hurt by the other and you find the strength within to move past the pain to speak the words, “I forgive you.” 

Today as you set off on your journey in this vehicle of togetherness, packed inside, along with the two of you, is a legacy of love that has formed you up until this moment. Consider this a travel kit of sorts. The witness of others’ journeys towards this destination of love in its purest form can be of great value. You’ve been blessed to see it lived in all of its stages; most recently and most profoundly you have seen it in the love your grandparents have displayed for one other in the worst of times. You’ve also glimpsed it through the stories of your aunts, uncles, friends and parents. If you look closely, you will garner a treasure of wisdom in these stories and discover that they each contain elements of joy and sorrow; order and chaos; mercy and blame; fulfillment and disenchantment; success and failure. And it is exactly within the paradox of all of these seemingly contradictory elements that the miracle of love and growth and expansion occurs.

This toolkit will prove to be invaluable when you are at a crossroad, or when you run out of fuel or when you need help overcoming an obstacle in your way. There is a richness of experience in this room that has shown up today because we believe in you and your unique togetherness and we will support you when you most need it. And never forget the Love that created each of you and brought you together, the same Love towards which you travel will be nearer to you than you even are to one another. Lean on this Love to guide the way.

There will be extraordinary milestones when you experience the beautiful balance of life and you feel as if you’ve arrived at your destination. Enjoy these. Bask in the joy they offer. Allow them to empower your union and strengthen your commitment. But realize that it probably won’t be long before you will be faced with a new experience that will offset that glorious balance and remind you there’s still a whole lot of road ahead. Don’t be afraid of the rough roads. Buckle in, yield to them and allow them to bring about the growth in your union they are meant to accomplish. They too, are a necessary part of the journey. As author Elizabeth Lesser so succinctly captured it, “We will always be falling apart and coming together and falling apart, because we cannot control this unruly life.” However, when we say yes to one other and to all of it, we will find beauty and meaning everywhere. We will be transformed into an incarnation of the very Love towards which we travel.

On the verge of entering this vehicle of togetherness, remember you’ve already accomplished the hardest part-you have each found the person in this world who makes you want to take the journey and who without, you might not even attempt it. In your years spent apart, you created an incredible foundation on which to travel. Now that you will be together, you will actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. Together, you will explore and learn and become something beyond and greater than yourselves. Together you will be formed into the Love that is your very destination. Together you will create your own legacy that will endure. Now, as you speak vows from the depths of your hearts, the story of life spent apart will end and the adventure of a lifetime will begin, together. Let the journey commence!

Though Stripped Bare by Life, She Clothes Herself with Strength and Dignity

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Mom with her firstborn son Todd, circa 1960

Sometime during my years of teenage angst, when daydreams of my future husband seemed to fill endless hours of my existence, I recall asking my dad to tell me about the first time he saw my mom. Immediately, an affectionate grin crossed his face, a sparkle entered his eye and without hesitation, he reminisced. As if he were watching a replay on the big screen, with keen clarity he willingly described the moment.

“She was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Libertyville, her head held high, with confidence and poise, holding the hand of her young son in hers.” The grin expanded into a smile as he continued, “…and she had those beautiful, long legs too.”

Never have I forgotten this encounter with my dad. While he did not hesitate to mention her physical beauty, it was not the first thing he noticed about her. Instead, it was her strength and dignity. For a teenage girl who was all consumed at the time with body image, this was a monumental revelation. As I have aged, my understanding of the significance of his words has expanded in accordance with my understanding of their cultural context.

It was the early 1960s. She was divorced, a single mom and a Roman Catholic; three words when added together, exposed a woman of her generation to a climate of rumors, gossip, shame. It was too early in anyone’s young life to be so misunderstood and defined by actions that were out of her control. Yet at just 22 years old, she seemed to be in a situation that appeared rather bleak, even by today’s standards.

The youngest of five children in an Irish/German Catholic family, she already carried with her the scars of living with an alcoholic father and the painful memories of her own mother as the target of his drunken rage. Following her graduation from high school, she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, seeking to do something wonderful with her life in service to others. Within a year, she knew she had a different calling and went home.

Quickly delving into post-convent life, she found a boy to whom she gave her heart and he became her husband. Returning from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the joyful news with her beloved, he left. Gone, never to be seen again. She, the daughter of an addicted father and an abused mother; abandoned, alone, pregnant and just 21.

Stripped bare by the circumstances of life, she did not give into despair, she did not succumb to the role of a victim, she did not become bitter and paralyzed. Instead she made a choice to clothe herself with strength and dignity. She moved back home and worked full-time. When her son was born, she loved him and nurtured him and embraced life as a single mom, with the help of her own mother. Most importantly, despite the stigma attached to her situation, she walked with her head held high.

With confidence and poise she faced incredible adversity. This is the essence of the woman whom my father fell in love with and she is the one I am forever blessed to call “Mom”. Today she celebrates her 80th birthday. In the weeks leading up to this occasion, she communicated clearly that she desired no fanfare, no parties, no special toasts. I am at a loss as to how to appropriately celebrate such a milestone when given these restrictions. Hence I turn to the written word to help me to shine light on her beautiful life I’ve been privy to witness my whole life. Strangely, at the same time I feel a sense of sadness for the time I’ve wasted. I feel myself grieve the years I didn’t open my eyes to the priceless gift lavishly given to me. Unfortunately, these add up to claim the majority of my life, that was until I became a mother myself.

Her amazing adventure with my dad began over 50 years ago on the day he saw her walking down the street with my brother. It is a story I increasingly cherish the older I get (click here for the juicy details). Against all odds, they took a chance on one another; she as a woman broken by abandonment; he as a man embracing a life with a stigmatized divorcee who already had a child whom he would have to learn to love as his own. Both were the product of conservative Catholic families staunchly against their union, because of the fact it could not be recognized by their Church due to her divorce. None of these factors stopped them from following their hearts.

Sue and Chuck circa 1962

Though now she journeyed in partnership with the love of her life, adversities did not cease. After elopement, their family’s silent treatment was deafening. Stripped bare of this support during their first year together, they strengthened their bond to one another. When their firstborn son was was delivered full-term without life or breath, their oneness became even more unwavering in their shared grief. And when my dad suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, one that rendered him helpless for many months, she again clothed herself with strength and dignity. She forged a new path and did whatever she could to nurse him back to health, all the while juggling motherhood and full-time employment outside of the home.

As her only daughter, I have grown up in the warmth of her unconditional love. In her quiet way she has spent herself completely to care for dad, my two brothers and myself, without complaint. Not once did she tell me the of the suffering she had endured before I entered her world. Nor did she ever speak of the suffering she endured because I had entered her world. (I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t always the easiest kid to parent.) Even now, when I phone her to apologize for my youthful and feisty stubbornness that I am privileged to encounter in my own offspring, it is with utter grace and mercy that she claims she doesn’t remember me ever being difficult.

Looking back, I honestly cannot recall a time when tribulation took a hiatus from her life. There were more losses of babies she wanted, people she cherished, some of whom were taken from us too soon. In the most recent of years, when retirement offers so many of her friends the opportunity to winter in sunny places, she has found herself stuck in the cold, harshness of Midwestern winter, driving back and forth to the hospital or the rehabilitation facility to faithfully be at my dad’s side when unwelcome health crises have crashed in. Yet somehow with each new crushing sadness, with every single harsh blow she allows herself to be made stronger and her dignity to be preserved.

One of my favorite Franciscan wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanityWe can see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.” And this, I think, sums her up.

If you happen to watch her on any given day, you will glimpse a woman who is free; a woman who is a conduit of grace in this world. You will glimpse it when she is surrounded by her 10 grandchildren overflowing into the spaces of her cozy town home. She loves and accepts them each wherever they are at in their journey and they know it beyond a doubt. You will glimpse it in the ways she cares for my dad. Time after time, she shows up from sunrise to sunset at his bedside in the Emergency Room, the hospital, the rehab center to support and advocate and love and suffer alongside him. You will glimpse it when she listens to her adult children with their adult problems. Without a first thought for her own needs, she sacrifices to make theirs more manageable. You will glimpse it when you see her feeding treats to all of the dogs who pass her home on their daily walks. They even recognize her when she is driving in her car and drag their owners towards her. You will glimpse it in the way you feel in her presence; special, loved, worthy, accepted just as you are, graced.

Mom, each time life strips you bare, you rise and clothe yourself with strength and dignity. This is the rich legacy you give the world and us, your children and grandchildren. You are a living example that no matter what waves crash in and threaten to drown earthly happiness, we can continue to walk this journey with confidence and poise and become the most amazing conduits of grace, just like you. Although words will never do justice in expressing my eternal gratitude to you, nor the depth of my love for you, be assured that I am forever blessed because of your life and the way you have chosen to live it, head held high, with confidence and poise, and yes, still with those beautiful, long legs.

Mom, Dad and I posing for our weekly Sunday Breakfast Club selfie

Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value.

Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income.

She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life.

She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come

She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her:

‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.’

Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.”

from PROVERBS 31-

Bruised, Yet Resurrected

There are some moments in our lives that are unforgettable because they are so good. There are others that are unforgettable because they bring us to our knees. Thankfully, my life is sprinkled with both and a whole lot of ordinariness sandwiched in between the two.motherhood

Recently, I was given the privilege to reflect and write about a really powerful film, Full of GraceAlthough it had been nearly a year since I attended the premiere of the film, it wasn’t a night I had forgotten. It was one of those unforgettable moments that brought me to my knees and prepared me for a message I needed to hear.

To read the review of how this movie impacted my life, go to Catholic World Report.

Purchase or download the film here.