From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Being born into an American household of predominantly Irish lineage, it was kind of taken for granted that we could explain away our worst family altercations by placing blame on the old Irish temper. It was just accepted as fact that we were all a bit fiery on the inside. When our passions were stoked, usually when we perceived we or someone we cared for had been wronged, we quickly entered into fight mode. Mostly our exchanges were of an intense verbal nature and not just a few reached a decibel which could be heard by neighbors near and far. I clearly recall being on the way home from a bike ride at age 6 or 7 and turning onto my street at an intersection that was about half a block from my house. I could very clearly hear my father yelling at my brothers. I learned pretty quickly it was better to take a detour at times such as this rather than enter the fray and risk becoming a secondary target of the rage.

Observing these outbursts and the subsequent fallout became a “normal” part of my childhood. It’s what we did. One late afternoon on a Saturday towards the end of summer my parents were outside doing yard work. I was suffering miserably from boredom, yet my creative brain had just dreamed up a solution to put an end to the day’s monotony. I was relieved and excited, but there was one caveat; my solution required a trip to the store for some craft supplies. I asked very nicely if one of them would take a break and run me to the store to pick up said items. “No”, they both answered separately. I proceeded to beg passionately, “Pretty pleeeaaassseee?” I pleaded and made my best case and even tried to barter taking on extra chores around the house if.only.someone.would.take.me. “No!” This terse, resounding and irritable response from the two of them, in infuriating unison, activated the ferocity within. Without any warning, while screaming and yelling at the injustice of it all, I threw a punch through what I believed to be a plexiglass door. Turned out it was glass. They took me for a ride that afternoon, not to the store, but to the clinic to get stitches in my wrist. Sitting up on the doctor’s examining table, at the tender age of ten years old, I remember the doctor speaking in hushed tones to my parents of concerns about my “anger problem”. That may have been the first time I realized that what was “normal” in my house might not be considered normal to outsiders. I felt ashamed.

During my forty years of life’s journey since that doctor quietly named my “anger problem” there have been plenty experiences when the same sense of shame returned. These sudden and powerful bursts of my temper left me exhausted, embarrassed and in need of making amends to those who were witnesses or recipients of their fury. I wished I could just ditch this angry part of me alongside the road and keep traveling, like the inedible parts of a piece of fruit I tossed out the window of my car on road trips. But it hasn’t been that easy and so far my attempts at extricating this fiery temper from my being have been entirely unsuccessful.

Metamorphosis may be defined as the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. As I sense an exodus from what I hope will prove the most difficult years of parenting my soon to be post-adolescent daughter, it seems my temper has undergone a sort of evolution. No longer is it as externally observable, but it has now gone underground and tends to wage a fierce battle in my mind and my heart when an ideal or belief I hold sacred is violated. Pandemic living, in all of its previously unimaginable facets has presented a whole slew of weekly, if not daily violations. I find them all over, the people who violate my sacred ideals and beliefs. They are found in the news every day—members of a political party who seem to me cruel and heartless, at times even vicious in their response to my brothers and sisters who have suffered for so long. They are found writing emails that populate my inbox at work—complaining about being “persecuted” because they are unable to experience church in the same way they were used to in pre-pandemic days. These people are found in my American Catholic community—excitedly sharing vile and disparaging articles on social media about other members of the Body of Christ, degrading us to a mere reflection of the country’s divided political system. They are members of my brother’s Arizona town—confronting him at a local home improvement store to tell him he is a “fu**ing idiot” for wearing a mask (he works in the medical field). They are my neighbors who share the beloved trail where I go to find relief from this crazy world—running four people across, not moving as I approach, forcing me off trail to avoid an accident that would have injured all of us.

These perceived transgressions of humanity, and countless others, they have consumed me for weeks. They have battled for my emotional energy and they have fueled my anger and frustration on the daily. Coupled with six weeks of working 70-hour weeks as part of the effort to reopen the parish where I serve, rendering me unable to find time for self-care and grounding prayer, my temper has been gaining strength within my being. There is something quite powerful when one feels justified and righteous in one’s rage. Every new infraction on another’s part only served to widen the divide of US vs. THEM within me. Each perceived violation thoroughly convinced me mine was the right team and my judgments all correct.

That day I was forced off the trail by the runners, it was as if my loving Creator intervened to push me off my path of self-destruction. It had been my first day off from work in weeks and I desperately needed to find some balance and reground in goodness. Reciting the Rosary while riding along on my bike, suddenly forced off the trail to avoid an accident, the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….” were interrupted by the most heinous slur of expletives coming not from an outsider, but from within my brain. I stopped them from leaving my mouth, but regardless, they provided me with a wake-up call. They were direct evidence of the ugliness consuming me and claiming me as its own. I was becoming the very divisive, unloving, cruel, heartless embodiment of what I exactly despised in others.

Hurt people hurt people”, my friend Carlos reminded me in an email. His words coupled with recent experiences served to bring forth the acute awareness of a need for a different way. It had been way too easy to get carried away in the fight of US vs. THEM and I needed to reverse my course. The past few weeks I’ve been about getting back to the basics of prayer, self-care, filling my mind and soul with lovely things and the voices of wisdom speakers. Surprisingly it is almost as easy to seek out and notice the lovely, as it is to seek out and notice the ugly, but it isn’t always so self-satisfying. Rather, loveliness and wisdom serve to bring me to my knees. They humble me and remind me of my very low and insignificant place in this world, how much I am a work in progress with a far way to go, but paradoxically they also serve to affirm my belovedness and great significance in the eyes of Love.

One recent morning while attending daily Mass, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been asking of God, what is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to be in this world? How do I contend with all that breaks my heart and my spirit? Sometimes God has to shout to get my attention. It was the last sentence in the First Reading of the day:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

MICAH 6:8

Wow! What a clear and simple formula, right? It might be if my fiery temper and humongous ego didn’t try to trip me up every.single.step.of.the.way.

In the aftermath of the death of the great Civil Rights Activist, John Lewis, the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett rebroadcast an extraordinary conversation with John recorded in 2013. Listening to John describe his life’s journey is to hear a man who did the work to become an embodiment of Micah 6:8. As he stated, it isn’t something natural to become this way. He says we have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace can a human being proclaim,

“In the religious sense, in a moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the Divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the Divine in your fellow human being…you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone…You beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”

John Lewis

I find his witness absolutely stunning. It is breathtaking. It is the opposite of everything I mostly see happening in the world around us right now. It is contrary to everything my arrogance and my thirst for revenge demand, even of those who have only slightly offended me. I stand in wonder and awe at Love so present within this human soul. It is the same Love incarnate found in Christ, even in the face of His unjust crucifixion. It is radical, counter-cultural, blessing those who persecute, standing with the poor and the outcast, never hating the oppressor, only the sin. It is forgiveness freely offered in the face of the unforgivable.

In the book, “Becoming Mister Rogers”, author Shea Tuttle describes a professor of theology who taught Fred Rogers during his studies to become an ordained minister. Dr. Orr had a unique way of describing evil that resonated with Fred. He referred to it as “The Accuser”. As Fred recalled, “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her…Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives.”

Dr. Orr taught that Jesus stands in complete contrast as “The Advocate”. In an interview Fred Rogers said of this, “Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”

With all of the issues that have arisen during these early months of the pandemic, growing in prominence in the exchanges from both sides of every issue is the reality of “cancel culture”. Cancel culture not only eggs us on to dismiss the ideas we find appalling, but it pushes us further to completely nullify the human dignity of the persons whose ideas we love to hate. This is exactly what I now see the Accuser has been tempting me to do, boldly, but falsely asserting to me that to do so is a righteous endeavor. In stark contradiction, the Advocate calls me forth to the work of loving, accepting and honoring the spark of the Divine in every human being. He dares me to demonstrate the most rebellious act possible when confronted with evil words and actions—forgiveness.

Jesus was serious when He said, “Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you.” And in opposition to what I imagine as being fair, He offered no provisions to disregard this commandment. He didn’t say, if your enemy suffocates and kills an innocent man of color, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy complains about how what you did to help them return to church isn’t good enough, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul and countless hours to make it happen, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy says and propagates falsities about their own brothers and sisters in faith, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy verbally attacks your brother for taking steps to keep others safe, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy puts your physical safety in danger by not making space for you on the trail, you can hate him. This commandment is hard to embrace and even more difficult to live. Yet it isn’t impossible to follow when we cooperate with Divine Grace and let it transform us, just as John Lewis did, just as Fred Rogers did, just as countless humans who have gone before us did and in doing so have forged the path for us to follow.

After weeks of angst and grappling with all that has been transpiring in my inner life, last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing a young man from the parish where I work receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is our belief that through this sacrament there is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which we are given the increased ability to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives and to witness Christ in every situation. Father was wearing vestments of bright red and gold and I was struck by the beauty of what they represented—the Holy Fire we would be calling upon to descend on us and energize us to love more fully. At the moment he was tracing the sign of the cross and anointing the forehead of the Confirmandi with the oil of Chrism, deep within me I felt a nudge to offer up to God the fiery temper that is mine. I imagined an all-encompassing Holy Fire descending from above co-mingling with my unholy fire ascending from below, its flames consuming the hatred with which my temper has burned as of late.

A peace was restored to me that day that has graciously remained. Its presence reveals to me the inner reformation required to become an Advocate cannot be accomplished through my efforts alone, but requires me to traverse the long path as a student in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace will I become a force of good in the face of evil and be able to offer forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable. From Accuser to Advocate, I am a work in progress; thankfully God never gives up on anyone.

John, Fred, all you saints of God who have walked this way before us, pray for us.

The Antonym of Me: Responding to Hate with Love

Photo by Thuong Do on Unsplash

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.

When the Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving One Does Not Measure Up

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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.”

ISAIAH 55:8-9

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…”

ISAIAH 55:10-12b

2019: Goodbye Melancholy; Hello Lovely!

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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:

  1. loving and attentive
  2. inspiring love
  3. having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye 
  4. highly pleasing; delightful
  5. of a great moral or spiritual beauty: 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 MagnoliaLovely.

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.

Amen.

Without further adieu, let the adventure begin…

“Goodbye Melancholy”; “Hello Lovely!” 

Hardness of Heart is No Match for Bold Love

 

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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.

 

 

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

 

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-