From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICAH 6:8

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

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

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

John Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Had Been Made Known to Them in the Breaking

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

The Road to Emmaus is a story contained in the Gospel of Luke that takes place just three days after the Resurrection of Jesus. Two followers of Christ are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They are discussing all that had taken place, from Jesus being handed over to the chief priests, His condemnation to death, His crucifixion, how the stone at His tomb had been found rolled away and of the angels who appeared and announced to the women, “He is alive!” While they were talking, Jesus draws near and begins walking with them. It says they did not recognize Him. When He asks of them what it is they are conversing about, they reply, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days? And as Jesus so masterfully does many times in the Gospels, He replies to their question with his own question: “What things?”

The two men take the time to give Jesus the summary of what has taken place. After explaining everything Jesus asks them “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And from that moment forward, He speaks of the words of Moses and the prophets and interprets to those on the way all the things in the scriptures which referred to Him, including these very events which had just occurred.

When they draw near to the village of Emmaus, Jesus looks as if He is going to continue on elsewhere, but His followers urge Him to stay with them. He sits at table with them, takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize Him; and he vanishes from their sight. This encounter propels them to immediately get up from the table and travel seven miles back to Jerusalem. There they find the eleven disciples of Jesus and they proceed to tell them what they had just seen. They explain to them everything that happened on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Ever since I heard this story recounted in the liturgy last Sunday, the words “He had been made known to them in the breaking…” have echoed in my head and heart. It seems to me in our days of living in the midst of a global pandemic, most everything is breaking, as it must have seemed to the followers of Christ after His crucifixion. Almost all of the foundations on which we have built the structure and meaning in our lives have crumbled underneath a real and ever present threat to the health of the world. It is utterly unbelievable and unreal. How quickly it has all come falling down. The implications are life changing and mind blowing.

In the earliest days of the stay at home orders I found myself scattered, experiencing difficulty in focusing with a sense of God’s presence evading me. I perceived myself to be walking perilously close to the edge of mental breakdown. This is something that is not unfamiliar to me and with experience I have better learned to recognize its closeness. What I swiftly realized is that which was propelling me closest to danger was more about others’ suffering than my own. Watching the stories of how families were separated from their hospitalized loved ones was gut-wrenching and worse yet was hearing of those dying alone. Suddenly, nurses and doctors who normally are responsible for attending to the physical health of patients were now having to fill in and provide some kind of emotional and spiritual support to both the dying and their families. And all the while, they are in the midst of suffering their own kind of hell, encountering unprecedented traumatic experiences each and every day.

The economic fallout, though somewhat affecting me personally, was put into perspective real quick when a cherished friend confided in me that her living situation had been radically altered. Previously all of the siblings had been combining their salaries to keep their household of four young adults as well as their elderly parents afloat. Now with business closures, reduced hours and unemployment, they were cumulatively living on one salary among the four working members. When she told me the six of them were only able to eat one meal per day I thought my heart was going to break into two. I grappled mightily with this revelation that poverty and need was as close as it has ever been to me. In this dark place of intense sadness, feeling paralyzed and close to breaking, He was made known to me.

Although it may be laughable to some, pretty consistently throughout my life since adolescence, my Creator has chosen to draw near to me through lyrics of songs and most often through those penned by the infamous Bono of the band U2. Such was the case on St. Patrick’s Day when Bono, self-isolating at his home overlooking beautiful Killiney Bay outside of Dublin, sat down at the piano and filmed himself singing a song he had just written entitled, “Let Your Love Be Known.” As I listened to the words and tears streamed down my face, I recognized that in the breaking of my heart and in the breaking of things I thought were certain, Jesus was making Himself known to me anew. It became crystal clear that in the midst of all this chaos and catastrophe, I have the power to do one thing and one thing only. Each and every morning on decent days and as often as is necessary on the worst of days, I ask myself, how can I make my love known today? What can I do to relieve the suffering of others in my little way? And then I humbly implore of my God, please let Your love be known through me. This question and pleading have grounded me and led me away from the precipice of despair. They have restored hope and have opened my eyes to look for the opportunities to show love and to recognize love being made known through others.

One of the first opportunities when I recognized love being made known through others was the day I shared with a small group of five childhood companions the story of my friend’s situation wherein six adults living under one roof were only able to afford one meal a day. We were group messaging, discussing the toll of recent days. I was only hoping to relieve my heartbreak by sharing my sadness. What happened next blew my mind. One after the other, these women and their families reached out with gifts of food, toilet paper and cash for me to pass onto my friend. Even my goddaughter, a high school student working part-time at Target, responded with a large sum of her savings toward the collection. We each did what we could and in the end we delivered over $1500 cash and gift cards, along with loads of supplies. We have an immense power, both individually and collectively to lighten the burden that crushes so many right now. The family was enabled to pay their mortgage and to secure enough food for a while. Since then many more opportunities have presented themselves. Time and time again, I have witnessed people of goodwill step up to care for others in creative and inspiring ways, even for strangers in need.

As we enter into another month of self-isolation, I still try to let a good dose of the world’s suffering into my heart, so as not to grow cold. But I have also begun to balance the breaking with the bright spots. For me these include the simple blessings which once went largely unnoticed when we were living in the normal day-to-day. Waking up to the laughter of my girl, who has at times taken on the schedule of your average vampire, has been like a medicine for my soul. Instead of being annoyed that she is up all night, I revel in the sound of the joy reverberating through my house in the early morning. When praying a blessing over my food before meal times, somehow my thoughts and intentions now include gratitude for the soil and its nutrients, the sun and the rain, the farmers and the food packagers, the pickers in the fields, the truck drivers and the grocery workers; all of these give of themselves to make it possible for me to nourish my body with food. For the first time in my adult life I find a sense of excitement to work outside in my yard to clean up the winter’s leaves and tackle the emerging weeds. To be surrounded by the beauty of spring and the new life it promises against the contrast of devastation that is our current reality is a gift unlike ever before.

On the Road to Emmaus, the followers of Jesus didn’t recognize Him at first because He was no longer the same after crucifixion and resurrection. Many of us naturally long for the time when we can go back to how things were before this pandemic changed everything. But in my longing for the comfort of normalcy, I find myself wrestling with the possibility that maybe I’m not supposed to be the same. So much has been exposed within me that I really don’t like seeing. I have been confronted by the character flaws and patterns that have comfortably hidden themselves under the guise of the normal routine. They include the false belief that since I have less than many of my neighbors in my affluent suburb, I shouldn’t be expected to give much to others; my lack of action that makes me complicit in creating a society that is unequal and unjust for those with the least among us; my unconscious mindset that I am entitled to my shelter, food and healthcare. These are all so ugly to face and yet, I can only hope and pray that when these dark days lighten, I will have been transformed. Maybe, just maybe, parts of me will even be unrecognizable compared to who I have been in the past.

Yesterday the death toll due to COVID 19 in the United States surpassed the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. This grim reality can remain but a cold, hard statistic unless we allow ourselves to enter into the stories of those who have been lost and the grief of those left behind. The temptation to avoid the suffering and remain hardened so that we don’t feel the pain is real. Yet it is precisely in this moment in history that we are being given the gift of an enormous opportunity. May we allow for enough of the breaking to occur within ourselves so that Love Incarnate may be made known to us and leave us transformed in His wake.

“It is no longer in my power to change, correct or add to the past; for neither sages or prophets could do that. And so what the past has embraced I must entrust to God.

O present moment, you belong to me, whole and entire. I desire to use you as best I can. And although I am weak and small, you grant me the grace of your omnipotence.

And so, trusting in Your mercy, I walk through life like a little child, offering you each day this heart burning with love for Your greater glory.”

Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul

When What We Consume Consumes Us

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Aday or two before the dreaded time change back in the beginning of November, I threw out a few questions to my Facebook friends in regards to how to face the dreaded darkness that was about to descend upon us:  What are your most successful coping strategies for adjusting and thriving? Or even just surviving? Is it just me or does this just seem to get harder every year? I am happy to report, my FB Friends did not disappoint and I received nearly twenty responses full of empathy and helpful suggestions. I waded through them all to find the common denominators and made my mind up to incorporate a few into my daily and weekly routine: Up my intake of Vitamin D; check! Take walks outside in nature; check! Get to the gym on the regular; check! Eat more nutritionally dense foods; check! As the days shortened in November and December, I honestly felt as if my newly incorporated practices were making for a better season than I had anticipated. I was thriving and productive…at least until January rolled around.

The Dawn of a New Decade: 2020

Returning home after work in the permeating gray gloom on most days and the darkness on others, all I could bring myself to do after crossing the threshold of the front door was to greet my family of humans and felines, change into my most comfortable pair of sweats and plop myself down on the sofa. From that point in the evening, the struggle to keep myself awake became the all-consuming challenge for the few hours until 8 p.m. or so. At that time, I could somehow justify to myself that it was time for bed. (Before you judge me, you should probably know that one of my cats does make a pretty forceful attempt to wake me at 3:30 a.m. each day ; )

In my nightly pursuit of alertness, I quickly discovered that if I tried to crack open the cover of one of the fifteen or so books I have in the TO READ pile next to my sofa, within a couple of pages not even toothpicks propped in my open eyes could keep my eyelids from closing. The thought of getting up to cook or clean or God forbid, leave the house to go shopping, was WAY too overwhelming to even consider. On most nights, my ace-in-the-hole go-to solution to stay awake was to consume the high adrenaline producing news of the day. With a simple click of the remote, I could get ticked off enough by the reporting of national political shenanigans to get my 2-3 hour buzz of wakefulness to cross the finish line until my 8 p.m bedtime. In the absence of any other truly meaningful productivity in my life outside of work, subconsciously I had convinced myself that becoming an angry couch activist who was tempted to hate certain politicians with every new bombshell of a story, was a good and worthwhile undertaking.

February: A Light LITERALLY Shines in the Darkness

January 2020 will go down tied with January 1914 as the third gloomiest on record. The Chicago area was officially just four minutes shy of nine straight days without sun thanks to a brief break in the clouds Friday morning.”

CHICAGO (WLS)

After what felt like an eternal stretch of time without sunshine, about a week ago, the golden ball in the sky finally reappeared. Almost instantly, I felt reinvigorated. And with several days of light following the first one, shining into the darkest recesses of my psyche, the idea is beginning to occur to me that maybe, just possibly, the very thing I was consuming nightly during the past month has really been consuming me and not in any sort of positive way.

Why is it that I am so quick to give my power away to those who anger me for making the most vulnerable among us feel powerless and afraid? Why do I allow these individuals to make me into someone I don’t want to be? Why would I give anyone the power to make me hate them when a hateful and spiteful person is not who I want to become in this world?

In a recent interview I heard with Ruby Sales, an African-American social justice activist, she explained how the enslaved created spirituals to sing to remind them of the power they each had, even in the midst of slavery. I was especially captivated about what she had to say about hatred as addressed in one of the spirituals she was taught, “I Love Everybody in My Heart”:

“You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

She went on to explain the difference between redemptive anger and non-redemptive anger:

Well, first of all, as you’ve just pointed out, love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

With this dawning revelation, I entered the pew on Saturday night to worship and be inspired by the words of the Scriptures, instead of being agitated by non-redemptive angry words found in tweets and reactionary news stories and ugly back and forth discourse on social media. I longed to be reminded that I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. What I heard was life-giving and affirming. It caused me to recall the kind of person I want to become and the simple, yet challenging actions I can take which will lead me there.

Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own…then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed…If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Isaiah 58:7, 8a, 9b-10

What became crystal clear to me that night is that by devouring the national news of polarization and vitriol, I have been allowing forces beyond my control to paralyze me in a state of non-redemptive anger, effectively devouring my ability to become an active participant in creating a community in which the vulnerable are cared for, where the marginalized are lifted up and all are treated with dignity.

Moving Forward in a Year of Election

There is a common theme that runs through the teachings of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that has always remained a difficult one for me to embrace. Many of her most quotable moments are summed up in this one:

It is easy to love the people far away.  It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

On a recent return trip home from my early morning coffee run, I spied them. Mother and teenage son, walking on our street, bundled up in heavy layers in the pre-dawn darkness of a snowy and cold winter’s day. As my car grew closer, the outline of the tool in their hands grew clearer. Each of them was walking in opposite directions from their house, carrying a shovel with which to clear the driveways and walkways of elderly neighbors on our block.

Such a simple view of how we can make a difference in our world each day is not exciting, it isn’t adrenaline producing, nor does it ignite a sense of righteousness and need to feel important. Instead, loving those close to me is hard. It is humbling. It is self-sacrificial. Many times it doesn’t lead to any sort of special acknowledgment. In my experience these acts of love in my home and neighborhood and workplace don’t energize me, but more often times deplete me. Yet as I am promised by my Creator and shown by the examples of people in my lifetime, these simple ways of channeling my redemptive anger will effectively build up and transform those in my family, in my local community and ultimately in my world. They will even change me.

Each vote in the upcoming election, though an action of great importance, a right earned for us through the sacrifices of many brave men and women throughout the ages, remains but a tiny ripple of influence in a world ripe for a revolution of civility, kindness and redemptive love. However, I realize that in these remaining months before the election, I can pray for the courage and strength to choose what remains mine to choose every single day, now and forever.

May I choose acts of transforming love over acts of non-redemptive anger and hatred. May I choose to share my bread with the hungry instead of sharing vitriolic articles on social media about my adversaries. May I choose to shelter the oppressed instead of oppressing those with whom I disagree. May I choose to clothe the naked with dignity, instead of stripping the humanity from those whom I don’t trust. May I choose to support my own family and friends, even when we don’t see eye to eye on how things should be. And may the love I choose to preserve be that which preserves me. For it is then, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Good Day, Sunshine!

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.

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

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Mom with her firstborn son Todd, circa 1960

Sometime during my years of teenage angst, when daydreams of my future husband seemed to fill endless hours of my existence, I recall asking my dad to tell me about the first time he saw my mom. Immediately, an affectionate grin crossed his face, a sparkle entered his eye and without hesitation, he reminisced. As if he were watching a replay on the big screen, with keen clarity he willingly described the moment.

“She was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Libertyville, her head held high, with confidence and poise, holding the hand of her young son in hers.” The grin expanded into a smile as he continued, “…and she had those beautiful, long legs too.”

Never have I forgotten this encounter with my dad. While he did not hesitate to mention her physical beauty, it was not the first thing he noticed about her. Instead, it was her strength and dignity. For a teenage girl who was all consumed at the time with body image, this was a monumental revelation. As I have aged, my understanding of the significance of his words has expanded in accordance with my understanding of their cultural context.

It was the early 1960s. She was divorced, a single mom and a Roman Catholic; three words when added together, exposed a woman of her generation to a climate of rumors, gossip, shame. It was too early in anyone’s young life to be so misunderstood and defined by actions that were out of her control. Yet at just 22 years old, she seemed to be in a situation that appeared rather bleak, even by today’s standards.

The youngest of five children in an Irish/German Catholic family, she already carried with her the scars of living with an alcoholic father and the painful memories of her own mother as the target of his drunken rage. Following her graduation from high school, she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, seeking to do something wonderful with her life in service to others. Within a year, she knew she had a different calling and went home.

Quickly delving into post-convent life, she found a boy to whom she gave her heart and he became her husband. Returning from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the joyful news with her beloved, he left. Gone, never to be seen again. She, the daughter of an addicted father and an abused mother; abandoned, alone, pregnant and just 21.

Stripped bare by the circumstances of life, she did not give into despair, she did not succumb to the role of a victim, she did not become bitter and paralyzed. Instead she made a choice to clothe herself with strength and dignity. She moved back home and worked full-time. When her son was born, she loved him and nurtured him and embraced life as a single mom, with the help of her own mother. Most importantly, despite the stigma attached to her situation, she walked with her head held high.

With confidence and poise she faced incredible adversity. This is the essence of the woman whom my father fell in love with and she is the one I am forever blessed to call “Mom”. Today she celebrates her 80th birthday. In the weeks leading up to this occasion, she communicated clearly that she desired no fanfare, no parties, no special toasts. I am at a loss as to how to appropriately celebrate such a milestone when given these restrictions. Hence I turn to the written word to help me to shine light on her beautiful life I’ve been privy to witness my whole life. Strangely, at the same time I feel a sense of sadness for the time I’ve wasted. I feel myself grieve the years I didn’t open my eyes to the priceless gift lavishly given to me. Unfortunately, these add up to claim the majority of my life, that was until I became a mother myself.

Her amazing adventure with my dad began over 50 years ago on the day he saw her walking down the street with my brother. It is a story I increasingly cherish the older I get (click here for the juicy details). Against all odds, they took a chance on one another; she as a woman broken by abandonment; he as a man embracing a life with a stigmatized divorcee who already had a child whom he would have to learn to love as his own. Both were the product of conservative Catholic families staunchly against their union, because of the fact it could not be recognized by their Church due to her divorce. None of these factors stopped them from following their hearts.

Sue and Chuck circa 1962

Though now she journeyed in partnership with the love of her life, adversities did not cease. After elopement, their family’s silent treatment was deafening. Stripped bare of this support during their first year together, they strengthened their bond to one another. When their firstborn son was was delivered full-term without life or breath, their oneness became even more unwavering in their shared grief. And when my dad suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, one that rendered him helpless for many months, she again clothed herself with strength and dignity. She forged a new path and did whatever she could to nurse him back to health, all the while juggling motherhood and full-time employment outside of the home.

As her only daughter, I have grown up in the warmth of her unconditional love. In her quiet way she has spent herself completely to care for dad, my two brothers and myself, without complaint. Not once did she tell me the of the suffering she had endured before I entered her world. Nor did she ever speak of the suffering she endured because I had entered her world. (I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t always the easiest kid to parent.) Even now, when I phone her to apologize for my youthful and feisty stubbornness that I am privileged to encounter in my own offspring, it is with utter grace and mercy that she claims she doesn’t remember me ever being difficult.

Looking back, I honestly cannot recall a time when tribulation took a hiatus from her life. There were more losses of babies she wanted, people she cherished, some of whom were taken from us too soon. In the most recent of years, when retirement offers so many of her friends the opportunity to winter in sunny places, she has found herself stuck in the cold, harshness of Midwestern winter, driving back and forth to the hospital or the rehabilitation facility to faithfully be at my dad’s side when unwelcome health crises have crashed in. Yet somehow with each new crushing sadness, with every single harsh blow she allows herself to be made stronger and her dignity to be preserved.

One of my favorite Franciscan wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanityWe can see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.” And this, I think, sums her up.

If you happen to watch her on any given day, you will glimpse a woman who is free; a woman who is a conduit of grace in this world. You will glimpse it when she is surrounded by her 10 grandchildren overflowing into the spaces of her cozy town home. She loves and accepts them each wherever they are at in their journey and they know it beyond a doubt. You will glimpse it in the ways she cares for my dad. Time after time, she shows up from sunrise to sunset at his bedside in the Emergency Room, the hospital, the rehab center to support and advocate and love and suffer alongside him. You will glimpse it when she listens to her adult children with their adult problems. Without a first thought for her own needs, she sacrifices to make theirs more manageable. You will glimpse it when you see her feeding treats to all of the dogs who pass her home on their daily walks. They even recognize her when she is driving in her car and drag their owners towards her. You will glimpse it in the way you feel in her presence; special, loved, worthy, accepted just as you are, graced.

Mom, each time life strips you bare, you rise and clothe yourself with strength and dignity. This is the rich legacy you give the world and us, your children and grandchildren. You are a living example that no matter what waves crash in and threaten to drown earthly happiness, we can continue to walk this journey with confidence and poise and become the most amazing conduits of grace, just like you. Although words will never do justice in expressing my eternal gratitude to you, nor the depth of my love for you, be assured that I am forever blessed because of your life and the way you have chosen to live it, head held high, with confidence and poise, and yes, still with those beautiful, long legs.

Mom, Dad and I posing for our weekly Sunday Breakfast Club selfie

Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value.

Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income.

She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life.

She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come

She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her:

‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.’

Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.”

from PROVERBS 31-

Blessed Brokenness

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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.”

-Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (MP3 download)

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.