The Destination is the Purest of Love; the Vehicle is Togetherness

Recently, I had the privilege to witness my oldest nephew, Keegan, marry the love of his life, Emma. Theirs is a union of two outstanding, salt-of-the-earth persons whose lives as individuals have made a positive difference in this world and whose togetherness will most certainly transform it. I was humbled and honored to offer the following reflection at their Marriage Ceremony. (photos by the amazing, wildly-talented and highly recommended Sandra Armenteros)

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Despite what you might think, not all of the best love stories have a magical beginning. Keegan and Emma met when they were just 13 and 11.  Emma was “forced” to play on the home school basketball team, because there was a need for more kids. At that first basketball practice, in a sweaty gymnasium, filled with the unforgettable fragrance of adolescent stench is where their story began. Magical? Not so much. Quirky and memorable? Definitely!

As the story continued, it contained ingredients that could create the plot for a good teenage flick–the highs of the crush phase, the lows of the he/she only-likes-me-as-a-friend phase, the coming of age experience of attending one another’s high school dances, the experience of discovering their own identities at colleges far apart from one another, all building up to the crescendo of their first real date as adults in December of 2013. But the most surprising component of the story? Almost the entire time they’ve known each other, they have lived in separate states. Their story is one of an enduring, long-distance relationship.

Recently, I was captivated by a post Emma wrote on Facebook, after she had just dropped Keegan at the airport:

“After living in separate states and driving back and forth every weekend for years, and spending the last 12 months flying across the country from Chicago to Virginia to California, it’s hard to believe this may have been our last trip before we get married and finally commit to living in just one place!”

And that is where we find ourselves now.  This day whose details have consumed so much of the very little time you’ve had together in this last year has finally arrived. Right now, I invite you to pause, take a deep breath and be present to this very moment.

To prepare for today, I sent Keegan and Emma some questions to complete so that I could get a deeper insight into what is at the heart of their relationship. Emma, Keegan wrote of how he is inspired by your independence and strength. He considers you his best friend and he described how your love and patience has helped him to become a better person towards others. Keegan, Emma wrote of how she is inspired by your love for family, your ability to dream big dreams and your strong work ethic that leads you to set a goal and achieve it. She described how your adventurous spirit pushes her out of her comfort zone and allows her to experience life more fully.

When asked to reflect upon what you see as the greatest strength of your union, you both made reference to your shared desire to actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. This is what you identified as the guiding principle at the heart of the decisions you make as individuals and as a couple.

Yet it was something Emma wrote about the decision to get married I found most powerful. She said,

“We are choosing to become something beyond and greater than ourselves as individuals”.

Contained within these words is the wisdom that the experience of true love expands us. Togetherness is the vehicle you are choosing to take on this journey whose destination is love in its truest and purest form. It is in and with and through this togetherness that you will be expanded beyond who you think you are, into your fullest selves and all you are meant to become.

In this vehicle of togetherness, you will become greater than yourselves. This may happen exactly in some of the ways you hope and dream it will. It may happen as you cheer one another on to accomplish goals you have set for yourselves and check things off your life’s great bucket list. It may happen when your joint efforts to better the world have done just that and you are able to tangibly experience it. It may happen if you are blessed with children and you see your love, now living outside of you, dwelling in a new human soul you co-created with the Creator.

This may also happen in some of the most unexpected ways you might not be able to imagine. It may happen when you’re face to face with the absolute worst parts of yourself and you hear the words from the other, “I love you, even with your imperfections.” It may happen when some things you dreamed of don’t work out as you had planned and you say to the other, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. I am in this for the long haul with you.” It may happen when you’ve been deeply hurt by the other and you find the strength within to move past the pain to speak the words, “I forgive you.” 

Today as you set off on your journey in this vehicle of togetherness, packed inside, along with the two of you, is a legacy of love that has formed you up until this moment. Consider this a travel kit of sorts. The witness of others’ journeys towards this destination of love in its purest form can be of great value. You’ve been blessed to see it lived in all of its stages; most recently and most profoundly you have seen it in the love your grandparents have displayed for one other in the worst of times. You’ve also glimpsed it through the stories of your aunts, uncles, friends and parents. If you look closely, you will garner a treasure of wisdom in these stories and discover that they each contain elements of joy and sorrow; order and chaos; mercy and blame; fulfillment and disenchantment; success and failure. And it is exactly within the paradox of all of these seemingly contradictory elements that the miracle of love and growth and expansion occurs.

This toolkit will prove to be invaluable when you are at a crossroad, or when you run out of fuel or when you need help overcoming an obstacle in your way. There is a richness of experience in this room that has shown up today because we believe in you and your unique togetherness and we will support you when you most need it. And never forget the Love that created each of you and brought you together, the same Love towards which you travel will be nearer to you than you even are to one another. Lean on this Love to guide the way.

There will be extraordinary milestones when you experience the beautiful balance of life and you feel as if you’ve arrived at your destination. Enjoy these. Bask in the joy they offer. Allow them to empower your union and strengthen your commitment. But realize that it probably won’t be long before you will be faced with a new experience that will offset that glorious balance and remind you there’s still a whole lot of road ahead. Don’t be afraid of the rough roads. Buckle in, yield to them and allow them to bring about the growth in your union they are meant to accomplish. They too, are a necessary part of the journey. As author Elizabeth Lesser so succinctly captured it, “We will always be falling apart and coming together and falling apart, because we cannot control this unruly life.” However, when we say yes to one other and to all of it, we will find beauty and meaning everywhere. We will be transformed into an incarnation of the very Love towards which we travel.

On the verge of entering this vehicle of togetherness, remember you’ve already accomplished the hardest part-you have each found the person in this world who makes you want to take the journey and who without, you might not even attempt it. In your years spent apart, you created an incredible foundation on which to travel. Now that you will be together, you will actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. Together, you will explore and learn and become something beyond and greater than yourselves. Together you will be formed into the Love that is your very destination. Together you will create your own legacy that will endure. Now, as you speak vows from the depths of your hearts, the story of life spent apart will end and the adventure of a lifetime will begin, together. Let the journey commence!

Death (& Rebirth) by Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mom,

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

Love, Sadie”

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

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

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

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

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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