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.
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
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.
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.
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 humanity. We 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.
Who can finda 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.”
There are some moments in our lives that are unforgettable because they are so good. There are others that are unforgettable because they bring us to our knees. Thankfully, my life is sprinkled with both and a whole lot of ordinariness sandwiched in between the two.
Recently, I was given the privilege to reflect and write about a really powerful film, Full of Grace. Although it had been nearly a year since I attended the premiere of the film, it wasn’t a night I had forgotten. It was one of those unforgettable moments that brought me to my knees and prepared me for a message I needed to hear.
The 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:
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.
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.”
We 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.
For some reason, even though Mother’s Day was a week ago, just this weekend in my Facebook feed was a video about mothers, produced by Pampers. It features very sweet mother-child moments, along with thank yous from moms to their kids for the ways in which they have taught them and made them better women. Towards the end the screen reads, “When you were born, I was born. And a love that transformed me forever was born.” It struck me as oddly paradoxical. You see I have spent the entire week wrestling with the experience of death to my ego, triggered by a heart-breaking experience with my girl.
After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that if I want holidays to look anything like the way I dream them up in my head, I must communicate my wants. It took me a long time and lots of frustration to figure out that no one in my house was born with the magical power to read minds. Wow, so simple a lesson, but such a hard one for me to learn! So a couple of weeks ago, with Mother’s Day approaching, I proudly took an assertive stance and let my husband and daughter know that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was some help with the weeds overtaking our yard, yet again. It was decided that we would tackle this on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, since it would give us the longest stretch of time to kick some broadleaf-weed-butt without any of life’s other interruptions. Friday night found me at the local home improvement store stocking up on a myriad of weapons whose labels all promise to take the life of even the nastiest of lawn invaders. After reminding my spouse via a text and my daughter with a verbal reminder of the plan for the next day, I settled in for a good night’s sleep, dreaming of how together, our little family would become powerful conquerors of the evil found spreading, by the minute, merely steps away from our front door.
Saturday morning arrived with perfect weather and the promise of a major task being accomplished by late afternoon. As we prepared to go to battle, our darling daughter remained asleep and by the time we had just about finished the job, she woke up to begin her homework. My self-pity started creeping in, but I tried to flex. I told myself, “Self, she is a teenager after all and needs her sleep-cut her some slack”. So I adjusted my expectations, as I have worked hard to do in my adult life and offered her Plan B. “Since you didn’t make it outside today, all I want for Mother’s Day is to not have to nag you about finishing homework.” She responded, “I am not making any promises.” Instead she said, “I have to make you breakfast in bed. It is what I do for you every year!” Since my favored hour of waking is sometime around 4:30 a.m. and hers is averaging somewhere around 11:00 a.m., I mentioned that this old tradition doesn’t work so much anymore because by the time she wakes up, I’m just about ready for lunch. She seemed saddened by this, but accepting.
Flash forward to Sunday morning. I woke up feeling proud of myself for expressing my needs so assertively. I thought about how much I’ve grown since my first Mother’s Day when I had unfair expectations of how the day should play out, without ever having communicated any of it to my husband. I went about my normal morning routine, happy to be so evolved as a mom, patting myself on the back for being so awesome! When afternoon approached, my one and only child finally woke up and started to play on her favorite electronic device. About a half hour later I ventured into her room, frustrated that she hadn’t started on her homework yet. Without looking up from her game, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day and kept on playing. That was it. There was no hug, no handmade card and not even the one thing I had asked for, the gift of doing her homework without me being involved. And then it hit me like a wicked, hard punch in the gut: self-pity. It took my breath away. It flooded every recess of my heart, soul and mind. I couldn’t shake it. I felt such a searing sense of pain, a sense of under appreciation, as if I was completely irrelevant. I prayed for the grace not to lash out in my pain.
Some logical part of me realized just how stupid I was being. Why was it that I was putting so much pressure on one single day to be a perfect representation of my daughter’s love for me? Why did I believe, on some sick level of my subconscious that if she didn’t get the expression perfectly right on this one day, it was an indication of how meaningless my efforts to be a good mom are? Was she only trying to respect my request for no breakfast in bed? Just days prior to Mother’s Day, we were driving home from school when she asked for my jacket that I was wearing. Since I wasn’t cold, I took it off and handed it over. She proceeded to take it into her hands, hold it up to her face, inhale deeply and exclaimed with such sweetness, “Mmm, Mama smell!” I must admit that at the time, this utterly melted me. In the mother-teen daughter dance, it was an extraordinarily tender moment, a glimpse of the many we had when she was younger. Oh, but the pity and the hurt wouldn’t let this loving moment be enough. Nor would it allow any of the 13 years of accrued moments-times when I knew beyond a doubt that she loved me, be enough. Sadly, this wrestling continued for days and wreaked havoc on me. I felt so completely broken; depleted of life and energy. This pain had way too much power, I hated it being so unresolved and so raw. But then I remembered something I had read from the Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr:
Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons. When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. And then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.”
This weekend, as my family gathered for Mass, I found myself captivated with the Breaking of the Bread unlike ever before. It was almost as if I was watching it in slow motion. In my faith tradition, at the celebration of Eucharist the priest holds up a large host of unleavened bread, which we believe has become the very Body of Christ. As he prays, he breaks this larger piece into many pieces and distributes them into the containers that hold the smaller hosts we are all to receive. As I watched the big host being broken, I saw how first, as one piece, it could only serve as food for one. But then it was broken and it became food for two. These pieces were again broken and now four could be fed. Over and over, it was broken; what was food for one had now become food and nourishment for sixteen.
At that moment, my eyes were opened wide and I recognized God anew, in this Breaking of the Bread. Through the searing pain I had been uncomfortably sitting with, a new light shined forth. It dawned on me that it is in this very state of brokenness where real transformation can happen and we can be used to nourish others. What if the more we experience brokenness and invite God to transform it, the more we too can become bread for those on the journey? What if this pain was truly a gift given to me to help me to grow into a better woman? This was the very moment I had longed for all week. A deep peace returned to me, replacing the self-pity and sadness that had flooded my being.
Riding home my girl just happened to mention to me that she wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day. WHAT!!?? You can imagine just how surprised I was. “It is about your Mama smell. I had to write it for an assignment for Reading. Do you want it when I get it back?” I told her yes, of course, I would love to read it! And I smiled, thinking about how that Pampers video, it is oddly paradoxical and true, after all.
When you were born I was born. And a love that transforms me forever was born. Thank you Sadie.