From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICAH 6:8

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

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

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

John Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

321439_10151442331384372_313230783_n
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-

Uncontrollable Outpouring

5f0a2d9b2e484eb511006908f44c9e79

Since yesterday morning, there has been a stirring within me, triggered by words I heard spoken in a homily. I’ve been going over them again and again and looking at them closely through the lenses of my life experiences.

Everything that is needed is given. All that is given is needed.”

The priest was referring to Pentecost-a day that Christians all over the world recalled yesterday. The early followers of Jesus, who were gathered together after he had ascended into heaven, received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and something new was unleashed in their lives. Pentecost is actually considered the birthday of the Church. Before this day, there was much confusion and fear and lack of direction in the lives of the disciples. The One whom they journeyed with, even unto his death and resurrection, had now left them and gone to a place they couldn’t go. They probably wondered, where do we go from here? He promised us that he wouldn’t leave us orphans, but what did he exactly mean?

They had been gathered together in one place, trying to figure out what they were to do next, and then it came-an Uncontrollable Outpouring:

And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong, driving wind and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” (Acts 2:2-4)

Boom! In that very moment, everything that they needed was given. God, in a lavish expression of his divine love, extravagantly indulged those gathered with a multitude of gifts to inspire, to convince, to save, to strengthen, to delight, to guide. And all that was given was needed. In the stories that follow Pentecost, one thing is very clear-these followers became significantly different than they were before. In their receiving of the Uncontrollable Outpouring, they became courageous and empowered. They became fearless and moved confidently to where they were led. They became bold and had a clarity of vision. They became passionate about sharing what they had been given. They became ablaze with a fire that could not be contained. And in the process of their sharing, the world around them was changed; people were given hope and joy and peace and love.

I believe that the action of Pentecost was not a one-time occurrence. I believe that this outpouring is happening all of the time. I believe it, because I have witnessed it all my life, in people unknown by most of the world and in people well known to the world. I have always been captivated by them, by those who live with an awareness of the Uncontrollable Outpouring and embrace it within themselves. They all share the characteristic of being convinced that they have been given gifts that are not their own to keep, but must be shared to accomplish the purpose for which the gift was given. They see themselves as vessels that are to be used for something greater than themselves. They do not despise their humanity, with all of its imperfection and flaws, but see it as a part of the plan. Many of them have made great mistakes in their lives, yet they allow these too to be used for a greater purpose.They are not of one religion, but their identities cut across all lines of race, gender, age and faith. Bono, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Richard Rohr, Mandela, Mother Theresa, Malala, Pope Francis-these come to mind when I think of persons whose inner fire has drawn me in, time after time. Most of all, I am fascinated by their passion to share the gifts and convictions that have been entrusted to them. In the face of odds stacked against them, harsh words of criticism, imprisonment and even the threat of death, nothing has gotten in the way of their need to express this passion, born within the depths of their being.

Once, when I was reflecting upon such persons, I was led to write down these words, which I entitled, Passion:

Passion, the poem

Today found me again in a pew at church. Instead of hearing words that were being proclaimed, I found myself drawn to the cloth banner that was newly hung on the wall. It was a fiery red color, with an unpredictable pattern of lines, portraying movement flowing from and going in every direction. As I drank in its beauty, my senses were delighted. I was amazed that just the design of a simple piece of fabric could communicate a truth greater than itself. Its abstractness spoke to me of the lavishness of God, who does not withhold anything that is needed, whose love moves from and to all directions; whose love cannot be controlled or limited or stopped. It occurred to me that this Uncontrollable Outpouring isn’t just for some, who will go on to change the world; it is for ALL. What is the difference between those persons who passionately embrace the Outpouring and the rest of us? If everything that is given is needed, then the truth is that the rest of us also have something that someone needs.

Maybe the difference is the fiat-the “yes” to all that is yearning to be poured out through us, the “yes” to be used as a vessel, trusting that even with our imperfections and cracks and gaps, great things can happen when we say “yes”. God does not force himself upon us, but once he is invited, will indulge us with an Uncontrollable Outpouring, freely given and capable of changing the world. One such fiat, uttered by a young girl in a moment of great fear, was the “yes” needed to gift the world with Jesus. What might happen if we too utter a fiat?

Today, may we dare to say “yes” and unleash Pentecost once again.