Light Waiting to be Found in the Shade of the Forest

After a week of some seriously formidable heat which forced all attempts at exercise to be done inside the confines of an air conditioned sweat box called “the gym”, this morning’s 70 degree temps, coupled with low humidity was a much welcomed invitation to return to nature. These past days have also been filled with seriously formidable political angst, fueled by hurtful words and chants against those who are different than others. I found a great need within to escape it all and reconnect with that which is life-giving. I hopped on my bike and headed down to the path along the river for a ride.

I left the headphones at home so as to take in not only the sights, but the sounds as well. The birds seemed extra sing-songy. I imagined maybe they too were thrilled with the break in the heat and their song was one of unencumbered joy. I headed south for about 5 miles taking in the colors and shapes and scents and sounds. Then I crossed the bridge and turned back to the north when the most exhilarating breeze greeted me. It was one of those blissful moments when it feels as if nature and I are in tandem. Me, delighting in its beauty and Nature, showing its appreciation with the first burst of cool refreshment I can remember feeling in quite some time.

This got me thinking about God and all the ways in which He is seeking to get our attention to let us know how much we are loved. Lavish colors, sweet fragrances, the distinct noises of rushing water and blowing winds — it occurs to me that on one level, all of it has been created as an expression of love to woo me, to delight me, to communicate to me. This awareness of light arrives in the midst of the shade of the forest and I am filled with wonder and awe. Welling up in my heart is immense gratitude for the immeasurable gift of this love, of this extravagant expression found in the wild.

We are always in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Forest bathing. Currently its all the rage in Japan. The city dwellers escape to the forests on the weekends in order to experience this therapeutic practice in the midst of their crazy busy lives. As it is defined at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/, “Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.”

This term, it comes to mind when I reflect on the oneness I feel with the Creator at this moment surrounded by creation. It strikes me both how depressing and how comical it is that in our contemporary times, when many have schedules which permit the luxury of being in nature on a daily basis, it is “discovered” by scientists that there are real physical and mental benefits of being in nature. Our Creator knew this all along, creating what we need for when we need it; always waiting to welcome us with a bounty of alluring and healing experiences in the diversity of landscapes in which we find ourselves living.

Towards the end of my ride, before ascending the hill which leads to my neighborhood, I sat for a few last moments to bask in the experience. Within eyesight I noticed a plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and species of plants and animals. This creative gathering of diversity blends together to create something far more glorious than any of its individual parts. Within earshot I appreciated the symphony of sounds that accompanied my view. I listened to the cacophony of songs from insects and mammals; the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, the splashing of the water when a fish jumped. Though nature is all so wild and unpredictable, I was most certain in the moment it is also particularly designed and well-planned by the Creator. He makes no mistakes.

In the last leg of my journey out of the forest I am convinced this too must be the same with the creation of the human race in its plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and cultures. We are created in the image and likeness of God. To reject one color or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to reject Him. To refuse one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to refuse the gift of generous creativity given freely as an expression of love to delight us, to woo us, to communicate to us. To throw away one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to throw away a bounty of alluring and healing experiences meant to benefit us. Though humanity is all so wild and unpredictable, I am most certain in this moment each and every one of us has been made with complete and loving intentionality. And it is precisely in this creative gathering of diversity the reflection of the fullness and glory of God is most perfect.

The Joy Found in Dying

Okay, I admit the title I chose for this post may be a bit too dramatic. In the interest of full disclosure, (although I am currently overdue for my bi-annual mammogram) to the best of my knowledge I am not at this exact moment physically dying and truly I cannot speak as to whether or not I will find joy when that process in my life is ongoing or imminent. The dying in which I find joy today is the death of perfectionism, the death of my best laid plans, the death of my high standards for others, the death of my fierce and stubborn ego. This process is ongoing, obviously, because on many days, I am still a perfectionist, think my plans are the best, have impossibly high standards that no one can meet and let my fierce and stubborn ego try to lead the way. But every so often come moments or hours or even days when I encounter a surrender within myself to the One who created all things. In those times a sense of deep joy rises up within me and a sense of refreshing relief washes over me like a rushing stream of fresh cool water on a hot and oppressive summer day.

One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter is one that keeps on giving to her every day (bonus-it gives to both me and my husband too). Last October on her 18th birthday we signed up for the monthly subscription to Spotify and made it a family subscription, so our little trinity could enjoy our vastly different tastes in music and experience sweet family harmony. Randomly I will remember an artist or album I loved in my youth or young married days, (before the lost years when kid tunes suddenly dominated like 10 years worth of music time while driving in my car) and when I search for it, without fail I get my instant fix. The other day I was riding my bike along the river and just such a random artist popped into my head, Lauryn Hill. Remember her from Sister Act 2? Remember her singing Joyful, Joyful or the 30 second scene of her way-too-short rendition of His Eye is on the SparrowAnyway, I had a hankering to listen to her voice. I cued up the playlist Lauryn Hill-Miseducation and heard a song that days later, still will not leave me.

It amazes me how God makes His presence known to me most often in ordinary ways and through ordinary means-so ordinary that I probably miss Him a lot. But I decided to hop off the bike, sit on the edge of the river by the dam and listen to the words of a song I had never heard before. To Zion which is on her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a gospel inspired mom anthem (written about her firstborn son, Zion) featuring Carlos Santana on the guitar. It is powerful, filled with the naked and raw emotion of a mother’s experience of welcoming new life into her world.

Now the joy of my world is in Zion…

I’ve never been in love like this before…

And I thank you for choosing me

To come through unto life to be

A beautiful reflection of his grace

For I know that a gift so great

Is only one God could create

And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion

Lauryn Hill

This song and its words have been haunting me for days because God knew I needed to be reminded of the gift so great that is mine in my daughter Sadie. She is my firstborn, my only and the greatest catalyst for God to put to death in me the things that keep me from being who He made me to be.

Almost from her beginning it was clear that she was not going to fit into any of the boxes prescribed by the orderly, polite society to which I aspired to be a most perfect citizen. And eighteen years later, unabashedly she continues to refuse to be boxed. While I still wrestle with the chains of being pleasing and apologetic to all in my world—friend, foe or stranger—she lives unapologetically, fearlessly living her truth, free from the need to please others at all costs to the self.

Her high school graduation was at the end of May, but she didn’t walk with her class. Despite weeks of me begging, bribing and cajoling for her to just pass the class she needed so we could be done with this school thing, true to form, she did things her way. No box for her. A couple of weeks earlier, in a moment of connectedness, she shared with me her sadness over the impending consequence of another round of summer school, but then reframed the situation by naming her truth out loud. “Mom, I am so proud of myself. I never thought I would actually graduate this year. I assumed I would have dropped out of high school by now or that I’d end up being a Super Senior (fifth year senior). But the reality is I will graduate this year, just a little bit late.” 

Sitting as the center of attention at her last IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of her high school career, surrounded by her teachers, her case manager, the school psychologist and her parents, she listened as they pointed out all of the positives they see in her character—her creativity, her great personality, the ways she understands the material unlike other students, her educated and informed perspective shared freely in class, her high level of intelligence. Yet they also expressed that they were confounded by her grades, because she tests high, but her grades don’t reflect this because she doesn’t turn in much homework. In the midst of all of these adults encouraging her to change her ways so she can just graduate, once again she refused to be put into the box we all want to squeeze her into. Instead courageously she declared aloud “I will try my best, but the school system wasn’t made for people like me. It isn’t set up in a way that encourages people with brains like mine to succeed with ease. It’s made for people with brains that society deems “normal”. To be honest, society in general isn’t made for people like me.” NEVER would I have been so brave at 18. And thirty one years later, on the verge of 50, still I am not so sure I could be.

Our entire journey has kind of been like this—me trying to keep together a neat and clean and perfect life, struggling to stay in our lane and keeping up the status quo. Her life, as God so perfectly created her, challenges my efforts every step of the way. And THIS is exactly one of the reasons I have so much joy today. I wonder who would I be today without her beautiful life confronting the worst parts of myself? Who would I be if I didn’t have reason to find my voice to stand up for a child who wasn’t getting the support she needed to succeed in school? Who would I be if I hadn’t walked with her through the perils of an anxiety disorder and witness its ability to render her completely unable to function? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to be flexible when her overly sensitive sense of touch deemed it necessary to try on 10 different outfits before finding one she could tolerate for a day of school, making her late time and again? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to accept that the only way she could sit through an hour of church was to spend most of the time drawing intricate mehndi designs on her hands with a Sharpie? Who would I be if I didn’t aspire to unconditionally love the girl God created her to be–fearfully and wonderfully made–yet so different from me, so different from many? Insufferable, intolerant, unkind, judgmental–that is who I would mostly be if it weren’t for her.

Watching my child suffer all these years from the ever present effects of living in a square peg world as a person with inattentive type ADHD, an anxiety disorder and a sensory processing disorder has also changed me profoundly. It probably didn’t make it any easier for her that we live as a middle class family in a predominantly white and affluent suburban Chicago community and she attended a private elementary school focused on superb academic performance. And yet, somewhere deep in my heart, I do trust that God plants us where we are meant to be in order that we might grow into who we are created to be. Unfolding before me every year of her life are glimpses of the soul He created. These glimpses—they surprise me and catch me off guard; they are intertwined with the less inspiring angst and messiness of teenage development. Oh but when I take notice of them, they humble me and send me to my knees in thanks for what He is forming within her. They restore hope and remind me that I am not the one in control, but only a supportive companion on the way. The constant struggle to hold her head above the water has smoothed her hard edges and cracked open her big heart to the suffering of others. It has strengthened her character and made her a fierce advocate for the plight of the marginalized.

It seems that every year she has invited me deeper into an entirely different relationship with those living on the periphery of life—and I have to admit that I haven’t always been a willing participant. Without any hesitation, she invites into our little home the souls who others might consider misfits, but she calls them friends. The outcasts, the traumatized, the bullied, the mentally unhealthy, the cutters, the motherless, the homeless, the rejected, the abandoned. She has brought them all home to shelter them and allow them to be welcomed, loved, accepted, fed and more than a couple of times, she has given up her bed so they could sleep in it for the night. One by one, these children she has brought to my door have become priceless gifts of life to me. Most look a lot like her—uniquely beautiful, but easily cast aside for not fitting into the confines of polite society. One by one their souls have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. One by one they have smoothed out my hard edges and cracked open my heart. They have strengthened my character and made me a fierce co-advocate for the plight of the marginalized alongside my daughter. They have halted my march in the lane of the status quo where I sought to find a sense of security and control. Together, she and her friends have propelled me into unknown terrain where I have encountered Christ more intimately than ever before.

Graduation Day found me beside her, up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers in her school gym. She asked me to go with her to watch her classmates walk, so that she could support them. I think it was way more difficult for her to be there than she had anticipated, but she stayed. One after one, students were called up to give speeches because they had achieved exemplary academic success. Their future plans and scholarships were announced. In his introductions, the principal speculated what incredible lives these students will most certainly lead. Through some tears, she continued to snap photos and cheer loudly for her fellow students. Without thought for herself, she showed up. Such a glimpse into this magnificence found in her young soul makes me way more proud of her than if she had passed that damn English class and walked across the stage to receive her diploma with the rest of the Class of 2019.

As I sit here at the kitchen table typing this post, I continue to grapple with this slow and painful process of dying. She is running a bit behind in her morning routine and summer school starts in 30 minutes. She is on week three of three with only four more days left. If she passes the class, she will receive her diploma in the mail come August. Waging war within me is the rising anxiety that she will be late today and the strict rules about attendance flash into my conscience and fuel my repeated reminders that I excitedly shout in the direction of her room. “Sadieremember only one excused absence is allowed for the entire session and tardies add up to an absence. Come on! Hurry up!!” God knows I just want her to be done with this leg of the journey. I want the finish line to be behind us.

At this exact moment, the One who created her, He who is all patient and has a great sense of humor, He crashes through to get my attention. My computer dings to alert me to a new email—it is one to which I subscribe daily. The subject title briefly flashes in the corner of my screen “Conscious Parenting—Giving Ourselves”. Seriously God!? I click the link and read:

Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . .

Maybe, as our hearts overflow, we find that love can, naturally of its own accord, extend wider, until it encompasses caring for all things, and connection to everything—until our love becomes Love itself…”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Today’s take away…surrender; let go; trust; love freely; allow Me to continue to stretch you into an incarnation of My love in this messy, chaotic world that is in need of being embraced as it is. For it is in dying that you will be born to eternal life.

Sadie, thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be. You are a beautiful reflection of His grace. For I know that a gift so great is only one that God could create. And I’m reminded every time I see your face that the joy of my world is in you.

Photo credit: Sadie by Abby Hentz

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

58761590_10156531518889372_922622523516911616_n

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!

50936366_10156322373644372_4056082997407907840_n

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

 

sergey-nechiporenko-7_chip

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

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