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

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Mom with her firstborn son Todd, circa 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sue and Chuck circa 1962

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from PROVERBS 31-

Bruised, Yet Resurrected

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

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

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

Purchase or download the film here.

Death (& Rebirth) by Motherhood

545619_10151094877724372_687825903_nThe day I got married, October 20, 1995, began very much like today. It was an unseasonably warm, 75 degree, bright autumn day. As the sunshine poured through the trees, illuminating the gorgeous shades of gold, bronze and red that enliven the Midwestern landscape at this time of year, I was filled with feelings of joy, hope and excitement for the 5:00 p.m. date I had with my husband-to-be at the church. Flash forward to 3:30 p.m. on that same day. I am in the back of my parents’ car being driven to said date. It is now 45 degrees and the temperature continues to drop by the hour. A deluge of bone-chilling rain is making it difficult to see, even with the wipers on full speed. “It’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day”, I heard from the front seat of the car and then over and over again from my bridesmaids, once inside the Bride’s Room, safely tucked away from my groom. But to tell you the truth, the rain didn’t dampen my spirits. Inside my naive 26 year old mind, I was convinced that no matter what the world dished out, together we were going to change it for the better and I was ready to get started.

Fresh out of college by just five months, he and I met at a wedding in Fall of 1993. My graduation gift from my parents had been a trip to Ireland in May of that same year. At every church my mom and I visited in the homeland of our ancestors, I prayed that I would meet him. My specific request to God was for an Irishman with a deep faith life and of the Roman Catholic tradition. Many years dating someone with a deep faith life, but without the same background as I convinced me that married life would be easier with someone who shared my tradition. Remarkably, he also was looking for a person with a deep faith life of the Roman Catholic tradition. I met his criteria, but wait, there was even more I thought I brought to the table. As a recent graduate of a traditional Catholic university, with Theology degree in hand and a conviction that if we followed what I thought was God’s plan for our marriage and family, we would sanctify the world together, how could he refuse? Despite my overconfidence (a.k.a., my huge ego), he didn’t refuse the opportunity, but willingly entered into a covenant of marriage with me two years later. God bless him.

The month of October, in my faith tradition, is kicked off by the feast days of some really great saints. We start by celebrating St. Therese of Lisieux, followed by the Guardian Angels and then we get to St. Francis. He is the one often spotted as a statuary in many a beautiful garden, portrayed with a host of animals surrounding him. The Prayer of St. Francis is renowned all over the world and often times at church, we sing a song based on its words entitled, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.  Outward images might lead some to imagine Francis was a soft kind of guy, singing Kumbaya while walking through nature, communing with God’s creatures. But on further examination, he is quite the opposite. Not only is his life story entirely compelling, but merely the words of his prayer are deeply challenging and not for the soft or the weak.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

Back in those days of young, married love, I truly didn’t understand these words. And that last line about dying? In my mind it only pertained to the End Game, nothing more, nothing less. It was with a sense of certainty that when I heard the phrase, “And it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life”, I thought to myself, I’m good to go! Eternal life after death? Check! Hey, it was smooth sailing on the road to sanctity and along with me I was bringing my husband, my hopefully soon-to-be big brood of children, and heck, even some other random strangers, simply by sharing with them my plans for how I thought God wanted them to live. Yikes. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans”.  

Parenthood began for us just nine days before our fifth year wedding anniversary. Our “celebration” didn’t feel so celebratory. We went out to an Italian restaurant to mark the day, but I couldn’t even stay awake at the dinner table. Our daughter was in the full-time care of family because I was unfit to be a mother to her. Adjusting to new medication in the hopes of becoming well enough to get her back, deep down inside, I felt incapable of ever being her mom. This scenario was furthest from the plans I thought were meant for my life. How could I be on the road to sanctity when I had already failed as a parent with the first child of what I thought was going to be five or so more? It was only then that I began to understand that there was another kind of death apart from the end game. And so began the process I affectionately refer to now as “Death by Motherhood”. There was a death to my hopes and dreams of how life should look and death from how chaotic and unmanageable it really was. There was a death to the image I had of myself and death from the reality of who I actually was. Co-mingling with the grief was a new and big and profound love I had never quite known before that drove my fight to get healthy for her.

As our beautiful daughter grew, we discovered that she was magnificent and sweet, loving and kind. She was captivated by books and coloring and singing and puppies and her Grandmas and Papas, cousins and friends. We also learned that her will was as strong as steel. Getting her dressed in the morning was a gargantuan task, as she would rip her clothes off as soon as I could get them on her. Many mornings I left for work in tears. I was exhausted from the fight with her and the day had barely even started. I thought she was being defiant and would lose patience with her. Sometimes I would even punish her for being disobedient. It wasn’t until the ripe age of five when we realized we were approaching this behavior in entirely the wrong way. She was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder with Tactile Defensiveness. The clothes I was trying to put on her felt torturous to her hypersensitive skin. How could I have missed this? How could I have caused her additional suffering by insisting she was behaving so badly when in actuality, she was trying to communicate to me that she needed help, but she didn’t have the right vocabulary to do so? Those early days, post-diagnosis, I was once again in touch with the ending of life as I knew it. There was a death to the image I had of how my child was supposed to be and death from the discovery that she was suffering and I had only made it worse. There was a death to wanting to keep up appearances of being a perfect little family and death from the unpredictability and chaos that life with Sensory Processing Disorder brought to us each day. Our tenth anniversary found us taking a weekend away, to breathe deeply and regroup so that we could return to deal with the learning curve of life with SPD. It also had us realizing that perhaps, there would be no second or third or fourth or fifth child. God knew we were struggling to be enough for our one, whom we loved more than life itself.

In fifth grade, mortification came with the ten words that formed a simple question posed by her young, but acutely observant teacher. “Have you ever thought of having her tested for ADHD?” Just when we finally had gotten a handle on how to navigate her sensory issues and help her to understand them, it seemed almost too much to consider that there was something else to confront. Yet it was apparent that she was struggling to keep her head above the water with the academic challenges brought on by each successive year, as well as with the anxiety attacks that began to plague her when it all became too much. After weeks of evaluation with a psychiatrist, it came time to hear the results. With a sense of humor and of hopeful optimism, the doctor looked at my husband and announced, “Well it seems as if she inherited ADHD from you…” His friendly gaze turned to me as he continued, “…and as if she inherited an Anxiety Disorder from you.” I felt like I was dying right there and then. Yet another death; this one to the hope of passing on only our best of qualities to our child and death from realizing I had no control over it. There was a death to the desire to save my daughter from such hardship and death from watching her experience all sorts of wicked side effects as she went through the “guinea pig” phase of finding the right medication. On our fifteenth anniversary we exchanged cards and gave one another the kind that refers to experiencing the highs and lows of life together and gratitude for the other’s support in and through it all.

Even as I write this reflection, I continue to perish. I encounter the intermingling of death and rebirth almost every day. She is now a high school student and to observe her thrive in this large environment where her uniqueness is encouraged and celebrated is breath-taking. On good days or in the good moments of average days, there is a sense of freedom and peace and joy glimpsed in her presence. She is finding her own sense of style after being confined by a school uniform for the past nine years. There are blue streaks in her hair and she is wearing jeans almost every day, which was at one time made impossible by SPD. There are new friends and amazing academic accomplishments. Life is good. And yet the reality of adolescence is increasingly present with its angst and testing of boundaries and pushing back at parents, even when we are only making simple requests. It is being told we are embarrassing and we could never understand and we do things the wrong way and we say things that are stupid and don’t make sense. And so it goes, day after day. In the worst of moments, I feel driven to the Flight or Fight Response within my being. I have to talk myself off the ledge and realize that ultimately, in my role as mom, neither extreme reaction will lead to good. But the pain is so much deeper because my heart is open wide to her and her soul is forever intertwined with mine. There is a death to the realization that her love is not going to look exactly like it did in the past and death from the feelings of distant love, since right now hugging and snuggling with her mom aren’t on her top-ten-list of things-to-do. There is a death to the feeling of being needed and appreciated by her and a death from being treated as unneeded and unappreciated, even if it be unintentional on her part. The burden is momentarily lightened when I read, The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You and hold on to hope that what is says really is true –OR– when I catch a glimpse of the sweet girl who loves me deeply, such as tonight. When I left my writing for a few minutes, I came back to this note on my screen:

Dear Mom,

This is beautiful. I know you’re not finished because you haven’t gotten to your 20th yet but I truly love it. I have decided that in my free time, I will start reading your blog.

Love, Sadie”

On this occasion of our twentieth anniversary we reminisce about the past and where the present finds us and how it is we got here. Now a 46 year old woman, my life resembles very little of what I was convinced God wanted it to be as I stood on the altar that cold, rainy night in October 1995 and said “I do”. What has become clearer to me now is that this vocation was never meant to be about me changing the world and sanctifying the people around me according to the plans I thought we should live. Rather, I was the one who needed saving and it was my world that needed change, according to the perfect plan that God had all along. That plan kicked into high gear with her birth and her amazing life. As Richard Rohr so beautifully expresses it,

We come to God not by doing it right (which teaches you very little), but invariably by doing it wrong and responding to our failures and suffering with openness and awareness. Forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. Henceforth, nothing can be a permanent dead end; everything is capable of new shape and meaning.”

These little “deaths”, brought to me courtesy of motherhood, they have led me to rebirth. Without them, I couldn’t have learned to find truth in the midst of error, faith in the midst of doubt. I wouldn’t have had the need to find the light in the midst of the darkness or joy in the midst of sadness. If I had never experienced despair, I wouldn’t have known the relief of finding hope in the midst of it. As I face the depth of sacrifice that will be demanded of me as a mom in these days and weeks and years ahead, I know that there will be many more opportunities for death to come. And come, it must, because my needs aren’t meant to be fulfilled by her, but she was born with the innate need to encounter God’s unconditional love through me.

Master, grant that I may seek to sow love, even when I feel hated; seek to pardon even when I feel injured; seek to console even I want to be consoled; seek to understand even when I feel misunderstood and seek to love even when I feel unloved. For it is in giving that I will receive; it is in pardoning that I will be pardoned; and it is in dying that I will be reborn to eternal life. Amen.”

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

brown-leavesWe are in that time of year in the Midwest when referring to the month of March, it is said, “It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” This year has been no exception to that old saying. And let me tell you, there have been times during this month when we’ve glimpsed the lamb and then it is as if the lion comes in for the kill again, shredding the lamb to little chops for the eating. The extremes have been plenty. Yet one thing has remained the same, both on the days when the lion rules and the days when the lamb appears-most everything is brown. Last week as I went for a run alongside the river, I couldn’t help but notice how everything was a shade of brown. It was as if I opened up a new 96 count pack of crayons and found that the only ones inside were the brown ones. Name a shade and I saw it that day–mahogany, raw sienna, burnt sienna, sepia, tumbleweed, burnt umber, raw umber, chestnut, copper, almond and more. On a good day, I love the color brown, especially as found in chocolate and coffee, however, without any contrasting shades of lime green or robin’s egg blue to bring out its richness, it seemed pretty blah. Actually, I found it to be quite depressing. Even the water looked to be brown, as it reflected the dead leftovers of winter all around its edges. As I trudged along the path, step after step, contemplating the dark dullness that enclosed me, I wondered why it was that the Creator allowed such lifelessness to surround us at times, when the spectrum of color that exists is so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving. Why are we robbed of such beauty at this time of the year?

This week my faith tradition celebrates Holy Week. In the days ahead we will recall again the journey Jesus made from washing the feet of those He served to His betrayal by the ones He loved most, from His sentencing to death by His own people, to His crucifixion and bloody death upon a cross. We will retell the stories that reveal the backdrop of His last days; days full of darkness. The darkness of hatred and violence and fear, the darkness of feeling betrayed, alone, unloved and in despair, the darkness of the depths of human depravity that would whip and mock and torture and sentence an innocent man to death. The darkness of hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying and crying out to his own father, “Why have you abandoned me?” Why was he, at the moment of his greatest need, robbed of the intimacy and protection of this love so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving?

Yet the story doesn’t end there. As we complete its retelling, we hear of unbelievable events. We hear of how the friends of Jesus went to the tomb only to find that he was no longer there.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”

It is in these moments that we are enabled to see that even in the darkest of life’s situations, even when the canvas of our lives is dismal, colorless and discouraging and it seems as if all is lost, the possibility for resurrection always remains. Rather than ending our lives, these moments have the ability to become the backdrop for a glorious unfolding of the most magnificent and beautiful and life-giving transformations that give us new life we could never know without that which precedes it.

A couple of weeks ago I was riveted by a letter that one of the victims of the Boston Bombing wrote to the perpetrator of this tragedy and posted online for the world to read. In her letter, Rebekah Gregory tells the story of her devastating loss of a limb, of horrifying memories of almost losing her son and of watching others die that she relives in her nightmares and of the paralyzing fear of evil which humans are capable of executing even on innocent people whom they don’t know. Yet Rebekah didn’t allow the power of evil to define her life or to hold her prisoner. She allowed the horrific event to be a new beginning, an awakening to a new life, one that has the potential to be even better than she could have experienced without this backdrop of devastation. She moved from being a victim to becoming a survivor to becoming someone who is now thriving. She describes the irony of the entire situation in her letter:

And I think that’s the ironic thing that happens when someone intends something for evil. Because somehow, some way, it always ends up good. But you are a coward. A little boy who wouldn’t even look me in the eyes to see that. Because you can’t handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger. And if your eyes would’ve met mine for just one second, you would’ve also seen that what you “blew up” really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.

So yes…you did take a part of me. Congratulations you now have a leg up…literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before, blessed that he is THRIVING, despite everything that has happened.”

With an incredible candor, courage and eloquence Rebekah gives an unbelievable witness to how the moments of suffering and dying can become the very moments when our life is saved and we are given a new purpose, a resurrection of sorts. Upon the backdrop of devastation, of lifelessness caused by an evil act of terrorism, a new glorious unfolding is underway.

Recently, there has been a string of events happening all at once that have brought great suffering to members of my extended family and friends. They include heart wrenching experiences that leave all of us at a loss and lead me to cry out to God because I feel so utterly helpless to do anything to relieve their suffering. It has been an opportunity to reflect upon moments of hardship that I myself have encountered in life. When I recall them, over and over there is one conclusion that I am consistently led to realize. These moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness are the very moments that led to new life, rebirth, transformation. As horrible as they were to live through, eventually they led to the greatest defining moments of growth and resurrection. They led me to a better life, a life I couldn’t have imagined possible, especially while in the midst of them. They led me to an awareness of my mission, my place, the ways that I could be a part of making the world a better place. Experiencing severe anxiety and depression as a teen led me into a journey of self-discovery through counseling that changed me forever. Suffering after the birth of my daughter freed me from the bondage of perfectionism that chained me and the experience allowed me to invite divine mercy to encompass my life (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/2014/04/26). The terrifying experience of watching my dad, my life’s strong anchor and the net to catch me should I fall, brought down by a traumatic brain injury gave birth to the desire to process my life through writing. Thus this blog was created. Throughout my journey these moments of suffering have consistently served as the lifeless backdrop that provide the contrast to enjoy even more the glorious unfolding to come.

Each day as I entrust to God’s care those whom I love who are suffering greatly, it is my prayer that they too will eventually find that these moments will become the contrast for a greater glory yet to reveal itself. I desire that their current backdrop filled with the shades of brown that bring a sense of darkness and gloom and despair will one day serve to showcase the incredible spectrum of life that will pop with new birth and growth. When death gives way to new life, and glory unfolds to reveal some of the other shades found in the box of crayons, such as wild strawberry, vivid tangerine, sun glow, spring green, sky blue, denim and vivid violet, surely they will shine brighter and bring added richness to the brown canvas upon which they are colored.

As I finished my run on that very dismal day, I turned my back to the water and ascended the hill that leads into my neighborhood. There I passed the house of the tulips. Every year, cars take a detour to go down this street. Some slow down, some park, some get out to photograph the beauty. Out of the dreary brown of late winter springs forth a spectacular sea of tulips in a rainbow of colors. On this particular day there were no tulips, but only the tattered dead leaves leftover from winter, pasted to the ground from the wetness of the newly melted snow. From this very same spot, in just a couple of weeks, a new picture will emerge. At that very moment it occurred to me that sometimes the beauty has to be robbed from us for a time in order that we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew. If it was always there I would take it for granted and it would lose its power to transform me.

From this lifeless backdrop a glorious unfolding is about to reveal itself. As for me, I am going to keep my eyes wide open-I don’t want to miss it.

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Say “Yes” to the Mess

muddy-field-7About a six weeks ago, I was running along the river pondering how life had been relatively smooth, as of late, mirroring the state of the water that was my companion on that run. In fact, the river was so smooth, I could see in it a perfect reflection of the trees that hang so gracefully over its banks. It was a breathtaking sight which allowed me to glimpse the beauty of creation twice. Since summer had ended, our family transitioned back to school almost effortlessly. In fact, it was probably the first time I could remember since my daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD with anxiety, added to the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder, that we had experienced such a peaceful and calm fall. Usually these changes to life triggered the worst of anxieties, leading to behaviors which became disruptive to any sense of normalcy we touched during less challenging times. But this year was different; so different that it was strange. I kept waiting for something to set off the chain of chaos that had become our new normal, but that something never came. I don’t know if it was the fact that this was her ninth year in her current school or that we finally figured out the perfect combination of meds. I don’t know if it was her incredibly knowledgeable and sensitive home room teacher who “gets” my girl and works well with her or the regular dosage of exercise and sweat that came as part of the package when she signed up to play volleyball. WHATEVER it was that could be attributed to these sweet, smooth, serene months of calm and peace; it was a most beautiful gift.

As the old idiom goes, all good things must come to an end. Volleyball season ended. High school placement tests were administered. Talk of next year’s plans were initiated. Then came the final straw: Shadow Day at her dream high school arrived. At first, when I picked her up after school, she seemed very excited about the day. She said that she participated in class and knew lots of the answers to the teachers’ questions. She mentioned that the high school kids affectionately referred to her as “Shadow” all throughout the day. She happily chatted about friends from last year’s 8th grade class with whom she was able to reconnect in the hallways and cafeteria. But mere hours later, the telltale signs reappeared. At first it was the hypersensitivity to touch. My right arm brushed up against her left arm in the car when I opened up the compartment between the seats. An explosive emotional response followed immediately, along with the physical retraction from the touch. Next came the need to balance out the unexpected sensory input by brushing the arm that wasn’t assaulted against my arm which remained between us. Quickly thereafter, she was throttled by a flooding of all things sensory. She slammed the radio off to stop the sound. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her eyes to shut out the onslaught of visual images that threatened to cut the thin thread of sanity to which she was clinging. To watch her in these moments is to witness a response of both fight and flight. It breaks my heart to see her suffering.

The smooth, serene waters are no longer. They are choppy and treacherous and threaten to drown her once again.The future is uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable. The secure position of stability, found after so many years of therapy and learning how to cope, has collapsed all too soon. The aftertaste that remains of the peace now lost makes this new chaos all the more bitter. Day after day, unmet expectations or unwanted sensations or unplanned events trigger the strife once again. I grasp to recall how we successfully navigated these days in the past. It feels as if I am a combat soldier, though once strong in battle, now utterly unprepared for the daily warfare.

In the midst of all this comes Advent, a time when I am supposed to prepare for the birth of a Savior on Christmas. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is in these days. How in the world can I prepare to invite the newborn babe into this utter turmoil, this MESS? When we prepared to invite her into the world, everything was ready and waiting. We took classes to learn how to care for her. We read books and devoured articles about how to be good parents. We painted her room and decorated it tastefully. We assembled the crib and equipped it with the softest bedding we could find. Everything was perfect and I felt ready.

In a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an old Advent reflection book written by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent.  Sometime during the end of the first week of Advent, I finally got around to opening it up. I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for His birth like I did my house, for her birth. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read,

Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”

Ugh. this is exactly why I both love and hate reading Richard Rohr’s writings. His insights usually serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects and flaws. Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on. The question that followed that particular day’s reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. The realization is that deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the disrupted plans, the late arrivals, the overwhelming uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable with emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering. There, I admit it.

I left the time of prayer that day reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. Yeah, somehow I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel. Like when Mary was visited by an Angel and she was greatly troubled and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Oh and that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2014 years ago was kind of a big deal, like a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. And, guess what? I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house all ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope. They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does regularly, looking for a place to birth him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, disrupted plans, late arrivals, overwhelming, uncontrollable, messy life. I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it is and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, that He would provide an opportunity for us to serve someone in need this Christmas. From that day forward, my Advent mantras became, “Help me to find You in the mess” and as particularly stressful moments arise daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

We have a tradition of cutting down our tree each year at a local Christmas Tree Farm run by the Benedictine monks. This year when we arrived at the farm, it was already about 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and mucky fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in thick, deep mud. Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our family’s help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and the occasional evergreen branch abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement. Her inventive solution had worked! We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled our search for the 2014 Christmas Tree down to the last 2 finalists, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had taken. When they turned around, they had become entrenched a second time. The evening was growing darker and our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up. Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials and bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun, even though we had secured the bundles of grasses to give the tires a surface to grab. As we tried to push the minivan from behind, both my husband and I slid backwards and subsequently, I fell down into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath. At that moment, it became clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God had provided us an opportunity as a family to serve  someone in need. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry. I couldn’t even have imagined a more disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.

With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set, we could no longer see well enough to reclaim our last 2 finalists, we were all covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the big crashing wave of realization that plans were now changed, nothing was like it usually is and we weren’t going home with a tree this night. Unrest, disorder, chaos, discord and uncontrollable, messy life continued as we made our way out of the field, stopping to attempt to comfort her as she collapsed on to the muddy ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say “yes” to this mess.” Then deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess, it is to be with you in this mess that I come.”

Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, visit STAR Institute: About SPD

An Oblivious Amen

10481946_10152235969004372_3691425472651833846_nThis past week I was delighted to find out that a local Catholic church was hosting one of my new favorite recording artists, Matt Maher (http://www.mattmahermusic.com/), in concert at a venue close to my home. Even though I really wanted to go, with the looming deadline of a rather large quarterly tax payment due in just days, I couldn’t justify spending the cash. I tried to put it out of my mind and forget about it. But just hours before the concert, a nagging urge to go came to the forefront in my consciousness. I wrestled with an intense desire to be fiscally responsible, but the nagging urge became all consuming, so I went.

As I approached the box office, I slid a credit card through the entrance in the glass window and asked to purchase one ticket. The girl behind the window promptly slid my card back to me, along with a ticket and said, “A generous donor just donated a handful of tickets to give away to the next few people in line.” As I accepted the gift, I found myself both speechless and stunned. A sense of gratitude flooded my heart because somehow, it seemed clear to me that I had just been led to a divine appointment. I was convinced that I was supposed to be in this place, at this time, for this concert and that before the end of the night, I might leave with some understanding as to why. Before Matt Maher walked onto stage, a representative from the host church welcomed us and began the night with prayer. As we Catholics are typically not known for possessing stellar skills when it comes to spontaneous prayer, we were invited to join together in the “Our Father”. Excited about the concert, I rushed through the words rotely and ended the prayer with a thoughtless, but resounding, “AMEN!”

Matt did not disappoint. We listened as he introduced his songs with stories of his life and how he had found God’s presence over and over in the midst of his experiences. At times the music was loud and rocked the theatre; at other times, it was reflective and prayerful. Through it all, I found myself drawn, like a moth to light, to the text painted on the side of his piano. As an enthusiastic aficionado of all things typographic, I was drawn to its simple, rugged beauty. In an irregular, vintage letterpress-like text, it simply read AMEN. After the concert, I even made my way to the stage to snap a photo of it. While it was a very worthwhile, enjoyable evening, I arrived home without a definite understanding as to why I was meant to be there. However, as darkness consumed the day’s light, I climbed into bed and once I stilled myself, I began to see it over and over in my head; that word, AMEN. I drifted to sleep for a time, only to awaken later with visions of it playing on repeat in my mind. So be it. That is the definition I could remember of amen as I laid there in bed. My dad, a true wordsmith, always made us look up words in the dictionary when we asked him what they meant. Most of them I forgot, but not this one. Just three simple words, but with such powerful possibilities. So be it. I had spoken it earlier that night. I had thoughtlessly spoken it at the end of the “Our Father”. I had just said “so be it” without even thinking about that to which I was agreeing. I had obliviously said “so be it” after telling God straight from my lips, “Thy will be done.” Yikes, I thought to myself, what if God takes me seriously?

It could be said of me at this point on the journey that I am a sort of recovering control-freak/perfectionist (still very much a work-in-progress). However, at my core, I don’t like to say “so be it” until I’ve previewed the terms and conditions to which I am agreeing and definitely not until I’ve been told the details of Plans “B” and “C” if “A” doesn’t worked out as was explained to me. My mother’s mantra, which I recall hearing even in my earliest of days, was something to the effect of, “Sometimes plans change and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.” This was spoken most often following a total meltdown on my part, because something out of MY control changed and I hated when that happened. I did not possess the admirable skill of “going with the flow”. Even before I met my husband, I was quite certain about how God’s future plans for my life should play out. My days at a Catholic University, sheltered in a bubble full of virtuous people striving for sainthood, only served to cement this vision of my perfect life. I was to marry a devoted, Catholic man who adored me, we were to have five to seven children and we were to reside in a gloriously beautiful, clean, sizeable home decorated straight out of the pages of the Pottery Barn catalog. My life’s work would be inside my home, homeschooling our little darlings so they would not be stained by the imperfections of the world outside our piece of heaven on earth (insert gagging noise here, right?)Well, apparently, this Plan A was gonna change and neither Plan B or Plan C was explained to me in advance, because if they were I would have NEVER agreed to them either. Guess what? No one consulted me. But then, was it possible that I had already agreed to the change because I had said the same oblivious AMEN, as I did the other night, following hundreds of “Thy Will Be Done” my whole life and God actually took me at my word?

My Plan A pretty much started to fall apart the day my devoted Catholic husband and I welcomed our first child into the world. Our daughter’s birth was the event that God used to gently pull the loose string on the tightly wound ball of my ideas for the future. On that day, mental illness struck with a mighty blow, crushing my ideals and aspirations of perfect motherhood into tiny shards, and later I would discover, this was only just the beginning. (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/?s=imperfect+imperfection). Nearly five years later, my life, even on the best of days resembled nothing of my hopes and dreams. A series of events that followed her arrival had derailed us off of the fast track to perfection; the realization that our first child would most likely be our only; her diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, which rendered the simplest task of getting her dressed in the morning a monumental and herculean one, the harsh reality that financially we couldn’t thrive without me working outside of the home. By the time we enrolled her in kindergarten, after I finally surrendered to the notion that I wasn’t up to the task of homeschooling this girl, I felt my life was completely falling apart. Where was God to be found in all of this mess? I believed Him to be a God of order, of perfect function and of peace. My life was disorderly, dysfunctional and stressful. Certainly this chaos couldn’t be God’s plan for my life.

Lent of 2007 was about to begin and through a series of events, a book landed in my hands which I decided to use as spiritual reading for the next 40 days. It’s title:Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. It’s author: Rabbi Irwin Kula. (http://yearnings.irwinkula.com/thebook.htm) I distinctly remember my husband remarking how very interesting it was that a Catholic girl was reading a book written by a Rabbi for her Lenten spiritual reading. He’s right, I thought to myself, but I was captivated by two words in the title, Sacred Messiness. Could the mess that was the reality of my life actually be sacred? I devoured the book and when finished, had a second and third helping. I went back over certain phrases in an attempt to soak them into my stream of consciousness. Some of the most powerful ones for me read,

Inevitably, for everyone there comes a time (or times) when the way we divvy up our life no longer makes sense…our relationships, our work, our world back us into a corner and cause us pain. And then it’s time to dive, to widen, to make room for new truths to emerge.

The ability to live with seeming contradictions-and the ambivalence and tensions these contradictions create-is what gives rise to wisdom. The messes are the point.”

WHAT? The messes are the point?? This book turned my inner life upside down and opened my eyes to the exciting possibility that God was exactly in all of this mess and was actually leading me into it, so that I would find Him in a whole new way. This unplanned, chaotic Plan G (a.k.a. God’s plan) for my life is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened me up to receive anew the gifts of mercy and non-judgment; acceptance and trust. It has made me much more yielding to things beyond my control. And without doubt, it continues to bless and surprise me with new challenges. I laugh to think what an an unlikely headline this would have made in the Plan A of my life – “God Uses Jewish Rabbi to Save Catholic Girl from Her Lame Plans.” Hee.

At age 11, our daughter was diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD. Once again I was led to dive into deep waters whose currents I am woefully unable to control. In the days since then, as I’ve been learning to navigate the turbulence, there have been times when I thought I would surely drown. But here I am, two years in, with my head still above water. I’m a stronger swimmer and am capable of doing things I didn’t know I had in me to do. It was a surprise to figure out that this major people pleaser has the ability to do that which my daughter recently described as one of my greatest talents, when she said, “Mom you are really good at writing mean letters, but making them sound really nice.” (In reference to my attempts to advocate for her when things at school aren’t going so well.)

In retrospect, I am thankful for all of the AMENs I’ve ever spoken-the deliberate, intentional ones and the oblivious, unintentional ones. Most of all, I am grateful to God for taking me at my word. Even though to this day, I still find moments when I’m still clinging with all my might to Plan A, deep within I am convinced that Plan G is ultimately a far better way. It is difficult and challenging and not very comfortable a whole lot of the time. However, if God deems it possible to be present in this mess called my life and deems it possible to somehow use it for good, I resoundingly and intentionally say, SO BE IT!