A beautiful thought from the late, great Irish poet and theologian John O’Donohue:
The burden of helplessness is so very heavy. I feel it in my bones as I drag them around all week trying to accomplish even the basic tasks required by life. Everything demands extra effort and I am tired. Collapsing on the sofa after work, I find myself asleep hours before my normal bed time. Yet in the morning I awake feeling the same as the day before. Rest doesn’t seem to ease the load.
They are so far away from me, the ones who suffer; about 1500 miles according to the map. But at the same time they are so near. I hold them deep within my heart, which breaks and grieves for what has been done to them out of hatred, out of misunderstanding, out of fear, out of ignorance, out of dehumanization.
Jolts of anger rise up and crash through the sadness, shake me out of my stupor and focus my attention on all that is awful and wrong in this country. “Somebody needs to be blamed for the state of our nation in which this tragedy keeps repeating itself over and over!” my brain shouts loudly, pointing proverbial fingers at the characters I most love to abhor in my country.
Though my self-righteous fuming makes me feel better about myself for a moment, it is just temporary and it too fails to ease the load. The helplessness returns with a vengeance, threatening to paralyze my ability to function in any sort of productive way.
Feebly I attempt to avoid the news coverage as it only seems to exacerbate the exhaustion in my soul, yet I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It fuels more sadness and grief and anger. It chews me up and spits me back out, beaten and bruised. But I don’t stop myself.
Longing for healing and nourishment and peace I drag myself out to the car and drive to Saturday night Mass. Surrounded by hundreds, I feel utterly alone. The music, the spoken words, they fade to the background as I stare at the crucifix hanging in the front. My gaze falls upon the crucified One.
Little by little I recollect that just as my brothers and sisters who were murdered this past week in El Paso, He too was murdered out of misunderstanding, out of fear, out of ignorance, out of dehumanization. The same hatred that killed them is the same hatred that killed Jesus.
And as He hung there dying, all the while being taunted and mocked, He uttered these profound, game-changing words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” While being nailed to the cross by the most perverted and wicked measures of hatred, He responds with the purest expression of love.
The anger and hatred I try to disguise as a thirst for justice—what if it is no better than the hatred which has been used to perpetrate evil? And it occurs to me that those same words, perhaps He utters them about me also…“Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she does.” Truly I don’t know how many times I’ve allowed my misunderstanding, my ignorance, my fear to reap pain and suffering on others. And I really don’t want to know because if I own that truth, I am reminded that there is no them, there is only us.
At the core of us I recognize a collective woundedness, a collective brokenness, our collective tendency to depravity. I am not immune to it. It lies deep within me also, just as it does in a young man who went to a Walmart near the border so that he could kill those whom he most feared in his own thirst for justice. There is no them, there is only us.
As the priest raises the wide rimmed chalice of wine up to the heavens during the prayer of consecration, I imagine us all in the cup together; the murdered, those they left behind, the murderer, his parents, those freshly paralyzed with fear because of the color of their skin, the white supremacists, the first responders, the racists, the surgeons, the politicians, the lovers, the haters, everyone in between and me. I offer us all to God’s mercy and to His power to open our hearts and minds and to His ability to transform our darkness into light, our hatred into love.
The words Father sings with the cup raised high crash into my stream of consciousness. “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
With clarity, I see my self-perceived helplessness as a bold lie. Each and every day I have a helpful choice to make—will I allow my woundedness and brokenness to incur more bleeding and pain in this world, or will I beg of the One greater than I that through Him, with Him and in Him, it may be transformed into an expression of redemptive love, as He chose, even while bleeding and dying on the cross?
My longing for healing and nourishment and peace propels me forward in the line to receive communion and I consume the gift of the bread and wine, which my faith tells me has been transformed into His body and blood. It dawns on me that all whom I blame for that which is horrible, they too are children of God. All those I most love to abhor for the way in which they treat those with brown or black skin—they are loved the same by Him as I am. The murderer? Also loved by God. This week I’ve been dragging around the heavy burden of hatred and unforgiveness, all the while trying to justify it in the name of righteousness. But in God’s Kingdom, I don’t think there is room for these. It’s best they be left outside the door before entering. The Christ—truly, He is the antonym of me.
Moved to a place of surrender, I drop my sack overflowing with hate and self-righteousness and judgment and humbly utter the words, Father, forgive US ALL for we know not what we do.
The first time I can remember when the One who is Almighty, All Powerful and All Loving did not measure up to my expectations was on Sunday, March 20, 1977. It was the morning of my First Communion and I had been spiritually prepared for months in advance to receive the Body of Christ miraculously present in the little piece of unleavened bread known as the host. The problem was, no one, other than my uninformed, imaginative 8 year old self, had prepared me physically for this experience.
Disclaimer: As I continue, it is not my intention to be offensive in any way and I myself believe wholeheartedly to this day in the Real Presence of Jesus present in the Eucharist, however I will be honest about my experience of Him as a child. IF you are easily offended by such honesty, you should probably stop reading here.
My method of self-preparation for First Communion consisted in this: when bored during Mass, I would find myself daydreaming and staring at the bas relief-esque sacred artwork on the wall to the right of the sanctuary and imagining the delicious taste of heaven I was going to receive on the day of my First Communion. It was a beautiful piece of art, portraying the parable of the vines and branches, with grapes a predominant theme in the portrayal. The deep theological significance of grapes and vines and branches was completely lost on me at that stage of spiritual development. My sole focus was on the taste of grapes. In the web I wove in my little girl mind, I associated the flavor of grape not with the actual fruit which we would consume plentifully each summer, but with the grape flavor I loved most–the one concocted by some genius pharmacist who helped brew up grape flavored Dimetapp, circa the 1970s. Back in the day I didn’t mind getting cold symptoms, because to be stuffed up and coughing meant a few days worth of better-than-candy Dimetapp was going to be freely poured onto a big spoon several times a day and handed over for me to drink. YUM! I was convinced this was most definitely a sweet pre-tasting of the heavenly banquet and how could God taste anything less delicious than Dimetapp?
Well, as you might imagine, March 20th arrived and all did not go according to my plan. When a heavily wheat flavored host was placed upon the outstretched tongue of this girl whose daily experience with bread involved only the kind named Wonder, things quickly took a turn for the worse. First off, Jesus got stuck to the roof of my mouth. This was a frequent experience of early communicants, at least until you got into the practice of receiving communion. This only served to intensify the unexpected and unpleasant flavor of the wheat filling my taste buds with horror. I tried to swallow what I could, but before I knew what was coming, my gag reflex kicked in and everything holy I had just consumed landed into the lap of my visibly shaken mother. I guess you could say, things between Jesus and I didn’t get off to a good start. I was wholly disappointed in the Almighty One. Why did He sell Himself so short when in my mind He should have been the best tasting food on earth!!?? Thankfully, in response my parents didn’t overreact and call in an exorcist for me. Instead, they made me practice receiving unconsecrated hosts for weeks before I was allowed to try again with the Real Jesus. I am happy to report that the Almighty One didn’t give up on me, even though He didn’t measure up to what I thought He should be like.
I was reminded of this story just the other day because my mom is cleaning out boxes of old stuff and she handed me a copy of the church bulletin she saved from 1977 with my name listed under the article entitled “First Communions”. My parents, who are now in their early eighties, find themselves in a difficult situation. They are moving. The good news is they’ve lived longer than they had planned and therefore they need more cash to continue those lives. The bad news is their cash is tied up in their property. Since their vacation rental in Galena hasn’t sold in the last four years it has been off and on the market, they have decided to sell their main home. It breaks my heart to see them have to upend their comfortable retirement and leave the place they love, filled with memories of their grandchildren growing from babies to adults, large, cozy family celebrations and memorable card games around the table where all of us gathered to be together, basking in the the warmth of my parents’ love and support, while simultaneously trash talking whoever dealt us a crappy hand.
I sense a wrestling within me again with the One who is Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving. This scenario most definitely does not measure up to my expectations of how He should provide for them. They are two of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met and they’ve given their lives in love and service of God and humanity. Why is He selling Himself short by allowing His servants to have to undergo such hardship and humility!!?? To add insult to injury, in the last two weeks, my dad who like the old Timex slogan, “takes a licking, but keeps on ticking” broke his elbow and about 7 days later had a mini-stroke. “Some people will do anything to get out of packing” I said to my dad in jest, but truth be told I find myself just plain old mad at the Almighty One because my mom is now burdened with more of the heavy lifting, both proverbially and in reality. Thankfully, in response He who is Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving doesn’t overreact and call in an exorcist for me. Instead, He invites me to practice the art of opening my eyes wide to find the good, the blessing, the lovely, the beautiful through this, in this and with this unfortunate scenario.
My parent’s oldest grandchild Keegan, and his wife Emma, are amazing humans. They have a way about them that is set apart. They are very passionate about that which they believe is important and their actions match their beliefs. One passion they have is giving back to those who have given to others. They have offered their comfortable ranch home to my parents to live in while Keegan is on active duty with the United States Marine Corps, thus removing a huge burden as to where to go now. Keegan will be taking time off of work to fly home in advance of the move to outfit the house with some added safety features so that Grandma and Papa are comfortable and safe. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that the graciousness of their spirits and joy of giving back may shine forth through Keegan and Emma, and my mom and dad can receive full circle the extravagant and supportive love they have shown since the day Keegan was born. “Open your eyes to this goodness” the still, small voice whispers to me.
Mom and I met the most lovely of women when Darlene, the realtor, showed up at the door one day at the end of March. Not only did she affirm my mom’s great sense of design, but shared how relieved she was at discovering there was not much work to be done here to stage the house. Darlene grew up with Emma’s parents, and greeted my parents as family, since they are Emma’s grandparents-in-law. With warmth and sweetness, she left my parents with hope and support and a generosity they had not expected to encounter in the experience of listing their home on the market. Although my career path took a very wide turn somewhere during my twenties, in my early life and early days of college, I wanted to be an Interior Designer. In the midst of the sadness of change, I found it to be a fun, creative and bonding experience working with my mom to get the house picture-ready. Darlene was impressed by our efforts and less than 24 hours after the house was listed, it sold. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that mom and I may be gifted with time together to build new, joyful memories in the midst of a letting go of old ones. “Open your eyes to this blessing” the still, small voice whispers to me.
In the past I have written more than once about my parent’s incredible love story, still going strong 57 years later. Every so often there is an opportunity to listen anew when they retell it to someone and I revel in hearing every last detail. Lo and behold, in preparing for moving day, my mom came upon a box of old letters my dad wrote to her when they had broken up, months before they ended up eloping and getting married. I was salivating at the chance to learn of these unknown details of their story and she let me read them. BE STILL MY BEATING HEART. When he thought all was lost and the plan was not going to go as he thought he wrote to her, “Of course I want you to change your mind about things and marry me because I know we would be happy together…if I can’t have you I can do the next best thing by remaining close to you so I can continue to tear myself up into little pieces.” And, “I’ll never forget you Suzanne Kennedy. I’ll remember all the good times and forget the bad. And as long as both of us are single, I’ll always hope that you’ll end up as my roommate for life. For no matter which way our lives lead us there will always be a section of my heart labeled “Sue & Todd”. (Todd is my brother from my mom’s first marriage and was about 3 or 4 years old at the time) But wait, there’s more…”I sincerely hope that you can decide what you want and get off the merry-go-round of confusion. It may be that you will be up and down with everyone that comes along. (In which case you’d be better off with me) But I sincerely hope not. I’m still available…my standing proposal is always open. I wish I could give you the world; but more than this I wish I could give you peace of mind in everything you do and all decisions you make.” Signed: “Just a tired, bewildered, little fool who wishes he had your shoulder to lay his befuddled head on every once in awhile. Chuck.”
“DAD!” I found myself exclaiming aloud after reading these lines, “Boy were you smooth!! You got the girl!! You won her over with your words and your heart!! You are good Dad!!” And suddenly he who finds himself saddened with broken body, unavailable to help his wife with the tasks of the move, he lights up like a Christmas tree and remembers that this life he has built with this incredible woman was good, is good and will continue to be good. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that dad may be reminded of his wonderful life and be affirmed in the excellent choices he has made, even though in his current situation his body prevents him from being who he wants to be for Mom. “Open your eyes to the lovely” the still, small voice whispers to me.
My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD.
And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
40+ years past my First Communion and our rough start together, I am happy to report that the Almighty One still hasn’t given up on me, even though He doesn’t always measure up to what I think He should be doing. And thankfully, He gently reminds me of my place in creation, while generously opening wide my eyes to see He surpasses my standard of measurement through the revelation of His presence most clearly in the good, the blessing, the lovely and the beautiful found in the scenarios I might even see as unfortunate.
Yesterday, on April 27th, in the midst of a beautiful week of Spring, a nasty snowstorm hit the Chicagoland area. “This is just wrong! This isn’t how it should be” was overheard all day in conversation, on the television, and on social media. Early in the morning today when I woke up and went out for my cup of coffee, I was awestruck by the beauty of the colors and contrast found in the rare palette of white snow, partially covering the bright green grass and colorful tulips set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that we all may realize that the most awe inspiring moments are sometimes born from the unwelcome, unwanted and unexpected intrusions into our lives. “Open your eyes to the beautiful” the still, small voice whispers to me and continues,“I am the Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving One. Trust me. I’ve got this!”
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Yes, in joy you shall go forth, in peace you shall be brought home…”
I have to admit I’ve never been a person who was captivated by systems of government or put much faith in politics. While I believe it is a legit calling for many a brave soul, it has never interested me. Long ago, during the early years of marriage, I found myself in exasperation over my husband’s obsession with politics. Though I had never seen this side of him previously, for whatever reason, his life became centered around the daily success of the party to which he was affiliated and the demise of the one with which he wasn’t. It seemed as if his mood rose and fell with the news story of the day. I remembering challenging him frequently as to whether or not this obsession was helping him live his vocation as a husband, a father, a social worker. Was it helping him to be a vessel of God’s grace to the world? I reminded him that Judas Iscariot also thought that salvation would come through politics–if only Jesus could rise in political rankings, Israel would be saved. Look at how things worked out for him, I would say.
One of the gift of life’s journey is the time and experiences it gives us to grow and change. I am happy to report that after some time, my husband got off the obsessive political train and found a better balance. His focus shifted more to how he could make a difference in the lives of those God had entrusted to his care–us, his family and the combat veterans who suffer from PTSD whom he treats in his work as a psychotherapist. Each day when he goes to work, he lives his life performing what we Catholics refer to as “The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy”, kind acts by which we live out the teachings of Christ by helping our neighbors with their material, physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
But in some kind of weird role reversal, here we are about 20 years later and over the past two years I’ve found myself slowly but steadily becoming the obsessive one. On too regular of a basis, I’ve been drawn like a moth to a flame to the chaos and negativity and sadness and injustice and plain ol’ ugliness playing out in American politics. Ugh. It’s not fun, but some days I just can’t even stop myself.
Back in my college days, as a double major in Theology and Mental Health/Human Services, I was introduced to the ancient Theory of Temperament. Different fields of the sciences have since re-framed it in many ways, but simply it proposes there are four basic types of temperaments found in human beings. Most suggest we are primarily comprised of one type, but others present the idea we are more likely a mix of two or more. Our professor had us take some kind of assessment to determine what our temperament was–Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine or Choleric. (If interested, you can take a similar quiz here.) Truly, it was no surprise to me when after adding up the numbers, I was deemed as having a melancholic temperament.
I found myself as a Melancholic described perfectly at this site, “Their generally dour demeanor comes from their inner struggle between an imperfect world and a desire for perfection.” BINGO. This is the truth at the core of my everyday experience, for as long as I can remember! One of my earliest memories was watching Jesus Christ Superstar and bitterly weeping over the injustice of Jesus being killed. For days this sadness hung over me like a big, black cloud. Heck, I was only like five years old, people! These tendencies go WAY deep and I have a long and too comfortable relationship with approaching everything I experience as not measuring up to how it should be. God have mercy on the people in my life (y’all know who you are). Thank you for not giving up on me, at least not yet!!
When I take a deep introspective look inside, I still don’t think I am a political person, but I do believe I have a deep commitment to Gospel values. As a teen, one of the qualities about Jesus Christ that made me want to follow Him and know Him and live a life trying to emulate Him was that He was a rebel with a cause. He bucked a system in which the poor and the misunderstood and the disabled and the women and the down-on-their-luck folks were written off. He championed the cause of the marginalized and He dined with sinners. And even more captivating to me was that some of His loudest critics and fiercest opponents were those from His own religious background, even from His own family. WHOA. This was unprecedented rebellion in the name of LOVE.
So fast forward to now and from my melancholic viewpoint, I see the way Jesus lived in the world and the way He loved people as the way the world should be. But as a wise teacher once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”. These past two years have been filled with encounters in which various groups of friends and acquaintances, with whom I formerly shared a vast amount of common ground on this vision of the world, are lining up in accusation against each other, fighting voraciously with words and insults. I find myself in this weird place where some of the loudest critics and fiercest opponents to my vision of a perfect world are those with whom I share a religious background and a shared history of life. Herein lies the dilemma, the drama, the trigger which I allow to dive me into a sea of melancholy for days on end. And I’ve finally decided it needs to stop.
In an unexpected and wonderfully surprising turn of events, last spring quite an extraordinary person entered my life through a common loved one. After a few blessed opportunities to encounter her over a period of nine months or so, I have decided that simply, she is the embodiment of the word lovely. If we still relied upon printed dictionaries to learn the meaning of words, it would be entirely appropriate for her picture to appear next to the word lovely. And this isn’t just because she is outwardly beautiful, which she is. But it goes so much deeper than that. There are a few different definitions of lovely found in the Free Dictionary, which aptly apply to my new friend. They are as follows:
- loving and attentive
- inspiring love
- having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye
- highly pleasing; delightful
- of a great moral or spiritual beauty: a lovely character.”
Lovely is who she is and what she is about. No one can fake this. In a world filled with reasons to be melancholic, her simple presence in a room lifts up and illuminates all that is beautiful. Even before she speaks a word, her heart is open and welcoming, her eyes communicate love and attentiveness and are always looking for beauty. She finds the good in people, in the world of nature, in the world of great thinkers, writers and poets and she searches and finds the good in ugly situations and difficult experiences. Spending time in her company is delightful, pleasing and it makes me want to be a better version of myself.
What I’ve come to learn from my friend’s example is that becoming lovely takes a lot of work. It takes years of mindfully choosing to find the lovely over and over and over again in people, in places, in things, and in situations and then to respond in kind with loveliness over and over again to people, to places, to things and to situations. For her, the journey to lovely started from the darkest and lowest place of her life and recovery was the road she took to get there.
With the commencement of a new year, I have been inwardly searching for a single word to guide me forward in 2019. The reason I really like the idea of choosing a word, rather than a specific resolution for a new year is because one word can inspire a multitude of positive actions as I unpack it and embrace it and live it over the months ahead. It has been brewing within me for weeks, but was crystallized yesterday when I caught sight of the photo above from the Instagram account of Magnolia. Lovely.
Cooperating with God to focus on all that is lovely will most definitely require hard work and choices and mindfulness. I will need to find balance and stop giving power to politics and pundits and the online arguments between my friends. When I am tempted to turn back, I will need to ask myself if such an obsession helps me live my vocation as a wife, a mother, a vessel of God’s grace in the world. I will need to remind myself that the salvation of the world will most definitely not come through politics, but through Love incarnate.
Like my new friend, I can use the tools of recovery to strengthen me on the way to becoming lovely. Arguably the best prayer ever written in the 20th century is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is the antithesis to my melancholic way of seeing. May it become my new daily anthem…
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
Without further adieu, let the adventure begin…
“Goodbye Melancholy”; “Hello Lovely!”
Yesterday morning, after a long hiatus, I stopped by sacredspace.ie to hang out with the Irish Jesuits. Since 1999, they have hosted a website which guides users through a wee bit of daily prayer. Not only does it offer to me a quick connection with my God, but it does double duty–it connects me to my roots (or at least the 48% of my heritage of which I’m most proud). Every time I connect to the site, which is hosted approximately 4,121 miles from where I am, in my imagination I picture a few of the Irish Jesuits gathered at a corner table in a dark and cozy pub in Dublin, crafting prayer while sipping on Guinness.
Though I freely admit I may over romanticize the actual logistics of how Sacred Space is created, one thing I know for sure is time and again, they successfully guide me through a simple, but effective prayer experience. I needed a mid-morning re-grounding. My mind has been spinning as of late and so many things are fueling my anger; mostly injustice and good people suffering needlessly and people pointing fingers and narcissistic political leaders whose selfish actions reap ripple after ripple of pain upon the least of these. As I went through the sequence of guided prayer, I sought to calm my spirit and refocus my mind so that the day might end as a productive one, rather than a failed attempt to complete a series of scattered and random tasks.
My life’s routines have put me in a place to have heard and read the four Gospels many, many times throughout my journey. It is a rarity to hear a story that I don’t remember listening to before. Yet on some occasions, there is one that presents itself in a way I’ve never heard it told. The reading within Sacred Space was the story from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3. It is the Sabbath, Jesus is in the synagogue and a man with a withered hand was there too. The Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him of breaking the law. So Jesus calls the man forward and asks all who are present, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. What comes next, I swear I had never heard before, but I really needed to hear it in the moment. It reads, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
Jesus was angry. So am I. What a relief; at least I am in good company. Jesus was grieved. So am I. The grief and sadness are at the core of the anger. Jesus saw that the Pharisees were more concerned with catching him breaking a law than they were with helping out a broken man. I too grieve at the hardness of the hearts of men and women, especially those who claim to be His followers, who are more concerned about winning and fulfilling a political agenda than they are about doing good to the least of these. Their hearts are hardened against the broken, against the impoverished, against the traumatized, against the marginalized. They are hardened against those fleeing violence, against those seeking a better life for family. They forget they were given the gift of being born in this country by ancestors who sacrificed in unimaginable ways to get here and to gift a better life for generations of descendants whom they would never meet. It is all so overwhelming. In the face of such callousness, I feel so small and helpless and unable to even make a dent.
But then I look back at the Gospel passage and I see Jesus, surrounded by hatred, make a bold choice. In the company of those who are plotting for his demise, he boldly says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Jesus chooses love. One response of love in the face of callousness made a big dent. It most definitely ticked off the Pharisees. The end of the reading says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Their agenda and their egos were so threatened by big and bold love that they joined together with unlikely allies to plot as to how they could take Jesus out of the picture. But then I think of the man with the withered hand and the effect this healing might have had in his life. Having a hand restored to wholeness could make all the difference in his ability to labor and provide for his family. It could free him from the self-consciousness that physical disability brings and the shackles of shame and the feeling of never being enough. Certainly this man’s healing set into motion ripples of goodness which not only changed him, but positively affected those closest to him and so on.
I am reminded of a recent podcast in which On Being with Krista Tippett interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, an author and professor in integrative medicine. Rachel shared about growing up in a Jewish household with a grandfather who was an orthodox rabbi and a mystic. He introduced Rachel to the ancient Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam. Explained simply in her words,
Tikkun olam is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”
It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. With these words echoing in my mind and heart and spirit, I sense peace being restored within me for now. My Creator gently brings to my attention that I’m not called to make a huge difference, but I am called to choose love–one decision, one word, one action at a time. I don’t have to take on the burden of callousness of all those whose hearts are closed and fists are raised–I only must respond to the world He allows to touch me, the world He places around me.
Today I will yield myself to grace and simply ask to be a vessel of love in the simple ways that present themselves to me. May I be used to bring forth justice, even if it just be in the life of my kiddo who is feeling frustrated with an unfair situation. May I be used to end suffering, even if it just be in the life of my husband who is carrying the heavy burden of the pain his clients live with each day. May I be used to heal the traumatized, even if it just be in the life of my friend whose child has recently revealed a past sexual assault. May I be used to give shelter to those in need of refuge, even if it just be in the life of my co-worker who needs a place to sit and vent. May God grant me the serenity to trust that even my small acts of love, in His hands, may yield big and bold ripples of goodness which will, in the end, overcome hatred and hardness of heart.
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
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.