A beautiful thought from the late, great Irish poet and theologian John O’Donohue:
The first time I can remember when the One who is Almighty, All Powerful and All Loving did not measure up to my expectations was on Sunday, March 20, 1977. It was the morning of my First Communion and I had been spiritually prepared for months in advance to receive the Body of Christ miraculously present in the little piece of unleavened bread known as the host. The problem was, no one, other than my uninformed, imaginative 8 year old self, had prepared me physically for this experience.
Disclaimer: As I continue, it is not my intention to be offensive in any way and I myself believe wholeheartedly to this day in the Real Presence of Jesus present in the Eucharist, however I will be honest about my experience of Him as a child. IF you are easily offended by such honesty, you should probably stop reading here.
My method of self-preparation for First Communion consisted in this: when bored during Mass, I would find myself daydreaming and staring at the bas relief-esque sacred artwork on the wall to the right of the sanctuary and imagining the delicious taste of heaven I was going to receive on the day of my First Communion. It was a beautiful piece of art, portraying the parable of the vines and branches, with grapes a predominant theme in the portrayal. The deep theological significance of grapes and vines and branches was completely lost on me at that stage of spiritual development. My sole focus was on the taste of grapes. In the web I wove in my little girl mind, I associated the flavor of grape not with the actual fruit which we would consume plentifully each summer, but with the grape flavor I loved most–the one concocted by some genius pharmacist who helped brew up grape flavored Dimetapp, circa the 1970s. Back in the day I didn’t mind getting cold symptoms, because to be stuffed up and coughing meant a few days worth of better-than-candy Dimetapp was going to be freely poured onto a big spoon several times a day and handed over for me to drink. YUM! I was convinced this was most definitely a sweet pre-tasting of the heavenly banquet and how could God taste anything less delicious than Dimetapp?
Well, as you might imagine, March 20th arrived and all did not go according to my plan. When a heavily wheat flavored host was placed upon the outstretched tongue of this girl whose daily experience with bread involved only the kind named Wonder, things quickly took a turn for the worse. First off, Jesus got stuck to the roof of my mouth. This was a frequent experience of early communicants, at least until you got into the practice of receiving communion. This only served to intensify the unexpected and unpleasant flavor of the wheat filling my taste buds with horror. I tried to swallow what I could, but before I knew what was coming, my gag reflex kicked in and everything holy I had just consumed landed into the lap of my visibly shaken mother. I guess you could say, things between Jesus and I didn’t get off to a good start. I was wholly disappointed in the Almighty One. Why did He sell Himself so short when in my mind He should have been the best tasting food on earth!!?? Thankfully, in response my parents didn’t overreact and call in an exorcist for me. Instead, they made me practice receiving unconsecrated hosts for weeks before I was allowed to try again with the Real Jesus. I am happy to report that the Almighty One didn’t give up on me, even though He didn’t measure up to what I thought He should be like.
I was reminded of this story just the other day because my mom is cleaning out boxes of old stuff and she handed me a copy of the church bulletin she saved from 1977 with my name listed under the article entitled “First Communions”. My parents, who are now in their early eighties, find themselves in a difficult situation. They are moving. The good news is they’ve lived longer than they had planned and therefore they need more cash to continue those lives. The bad news is their cash is tied up in their property. Since their vacation rental in Galena hasn’t sold in the last four years it has been off and on the market, they have decided to sell their main home. It breaks my heart to see them have to upend their comfortable retirement and leave the place they love, filled with memories of their grandchildren growing from babies to adults, large, cozy family celebrations and memorable card games around the table where all of us gathered to be together, basking in the the warmth of my parents’ love and support, while simultaneously trash talking whoever dealt us a crappy hand.
I sense a wrestling within me again with the One who is Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving. This scenario most definitely does not measure up to my expectations of how He should provide for them. They are two of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met and they’ve given their lives in love and service of God and humanity. Why is He selling Himself short by allowing His servants to have to undergo such hardship and humility!!?? To add insult to injury, in the last two weeks, my dad who like the old Timex slogan, “takes a licking, but keeps on ticking” broke his elbow and about 7 days later had a mini-stroke. “Some people will do anything to get out of packing” I said to my dad in jest, but truth be told I find myself just plain old mad at the Almighty One because my mom is now burdened with more of the heavy lifting, both proverbially and in reality. Thankfully, in response He who is Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving doesn’t overreact and call in an exorcist for me. Instead, He invites me to practice the art of opening my eyes wide to find the good, the blessing, the lovely, the beautiful through this, in this and with this unfortunate scenario.
My parent’s oldest grandchild Keegan, and his wife Emma, are amazing humans. They have a way about them that is set apart. They are very passionate about that which they believe is important and their actions match their beliefs. One passion they have is giving back to those who have given to others. They have offered their comfortable ranch home to my parents to live in while Keegan is on active duty with the United States Marine Corps, thus removing a huge burden as to where to go now. Keegan will be taking time off of work to fly home in advance of the move to outfit the house with some added safety features so that Grandma and Papa are comfortable and safe. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that the graciousness of their spirits and joy of giving back may shine forth through Keegan and Emma, and my mom and dad can receive full circle the extravagant and supportive love they have shown since the day Keegan was born. “Open your eyes to this goodness” the still, small voice whispers to me.
Mom and I met the most lovely of women when Darlene, the realtor, showed up at the door one day at the end of March. Not only did she affirm my mom’s great sense of design, but shared how relieved she was at discovering there was not much work to be done here to stage the house. Darlene grew up with Emma’s parents, and greeted my parents as family, since they are Emma’s grandparents-in-law. With warmth and sweetness, she left my parents with hope and support and a generosity they had not expected to encounter in the experience of listing their home on the market. Although my career path took a very wide turn somewhere during my twenties, in my early life and early days of college, I wanted to be an Interior Designer. In the midst of the sadness of change, I found it to be a fun, creative and bonding experience working with my mom to get the house picture-ready. Darlene was impressed by our efforts and less than 24 hours after the house was listed, it sold. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that mom and I may be gifted with time together to build new, joyful memories in the midst of a letting go of old ones. “Open your eyes to this blessing” the still, small voice whispers to me.
In the past I have written more than once about my parent’s incredible love story, still going strong 57 years later. Every so often there is an opportunity to listen anew when they retell it to someone and I revel in hearing every last detail. Lo and behold, in preparing for moving day, my mom came upon a box of old letters my dad wrote to her when they had broken up, months before they ended up eloping and getting married. I was salivating at the chance to learn of these unknown details of their story and she let me read them. BE STILL MY BEATING HEART. When he thought all was lost and the plan was not going to go as he thought he wrote to her, “Of course I want you to change your mind about things and marry me because I know we would be happy together…if I can’t have you I can do the next best thing by remaining close to you so I can continue to tear myself up into little pieces.” And, “I’ll never forget you Suzanne Kennedy. I’ll remember all the good times and forget the bad. And as long as both of us are single, I’ll always hope that you’ll end up as my roommate for life. For no matter which way our lives lead us there will always be a section of my heart labeled “Sue & Todd”. (Todd is my brother from my mom’s first marriage and was about 3 or 4 years old at the time) But wait, there’s more…”I sincerely hope that you can decide what you want and get off the merry-go-round of confusion. It may be that you will be up and down with everyone that comes along. (In which case you’d be better off with me) But I sincerely hope not. I’m still available…my standing proposal is always open. I wish I could give you the world; but more than this I wish I could give you peace of mind in everything you do and all decisions you make.” Signed: “Just a tired, bewildered, little fool who wishes he had your shoulder to lay his befuddled head on every once in awhile. Chuck.”
“DAD!” I found myself exclaiming aloud after reading these lines, “Boy were you smooth!! You got the girl!! You won her over with your words and your heart!! You are good Dad!!” And suddenly he who finds himself saddened with broken body, unavailable to help his wife with the tasks of the move, he lights up like a Christmas tree and remembers that this life he has built with this incredible woman was good, is good and will continue to be good. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that dad may be reminded of his wonderful life and be affirmed in the excellent choices he has made, even though in his current situation his body prevents him from being who he wants to be for Mom. “Open your eyes to the lovely” the still, small voice whispers to me.
My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD.
And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
40+ years past my First Communion and our rough start together, I am happy to report that the Almighty One still hasn’t given up on me, even though He doesn’t always measure up to what I think He should be doing. And thankfully, He gently reminds me of my place in creation, while generously opening wide my eyes to see He surpasses my standard of measurement through the revelation of His presence most clearly in the good, the blessing, the lovely and the beautiful found in the scenarios I might even see as unfortunate.
Yesterday, on April 27th, in the midst of a beautiful week of Spring, a nasty snowstorm hit the Chicagoland area. “This is just wrong! This isn’t how it should be” was overheard all day in conversation, on the television, and on social media. Early in the morning today when I woke up and went out for my cup of coffee, I was awestruck by the beauty of the colors and contrast found in the rare palette of white snow, partially covering the bright green grass and colorful tulips set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It occurs to me that maybe this scenario has been allowed so that we all may realize that the most awe inspiring moments are sometimes born from the unwelcome, unwanted and unexpected intrusions into our lives. “Open your eyes to the beautiful” the still, small voice whispers to me and continues,“I am the Almighty, All Powerful & All Loving One. Trust me. I’ve got this!”
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Yes, in joy you shall go forth, in peace you shall be brought home…”
A couple of years ago, during the same time of the year in which we find ourselves now, I wrote a blog post about the contrasts found in nature, which also seem to mirror the contrasts found in the experiences of our lives. I am grateful for the opportunity given me by Carlos Briceño, editor of Christ is Our Hope Magazine to revisit the post and update it to be relevant for today.
During the process of revision, it struck me how the same words written then still hold true today. Many of my loved ones are still suffering; watching them endure heart-wrenching experiences is still painful and there are days when I still feel utterly helpless to relieve their suffering. Yet these same written words also hold true—life’s moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness still can serve as the lifeless backdrop for a glorious unfolding to come. May we keep our eyes wide open so we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew.
The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding as featured in the March 2017 edition of Christ is Our Hope Magazine.
Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul
When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.
Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.
»The Early Days
It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.
I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.
When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.
»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future
Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.
One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.
It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.
»Undergoing Deeper Transformation
Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.
On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.
In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.
Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.
»By No Power of My Own
Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:
What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically. The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”
(Testament of St Francis 1-2).
More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.
This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.