Spiritual Foreshadowing

“And though The Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” — Isaiah 30:20-21

I can still remember driving away from Pierre, SD, in the summer of 2006 with tears streaming down my face. I did not want to move, but I was out of money and the only job offer I had received required a significant move. The knot in the pit of my stomach told me I had made the wrong decision, but I couldn’t see any other options.

At least, I had not been able to see any other options until a few hours before I closed the door to my apartment for the last time. I had opened the mailbox that afternoon to discover a letter inviting me to interview for my dream job. If I hadn’t given notice on my apartment, hadn’t rented a trailer in which to pack my possessions, hadn’t enlisted the help of friends for the move, I would have done a happy dance the moment I saw the envelope and would have called immediately to schedule the interview. Instead, I sat in the stairwell, breathing deeply and slowly until the waves of despair had ebbed enough for me to mount the stairs and continue moving boxes out of my apartment.

I knew the gut-level feel of a wrong decision. I had taken a teaching job midway through the school system when my girls were growing up; bad decision. A decade later, I had allowed myself to be guilted into sacrificing my dream to help a floundering nonprofit; bad decision. Just a couple years earlier, I had allowed myself to be seduced away from a job I loved by the siren call of children in need; bad decision. And there I was, making another bad decision.

That decision did something none of the others had done, though. It paralyzed me. I could not move forward because I stood like Lot’s wife, looking back, wondering how I had come to make such an incredible mess of my life. After moving, I plummeted into depression, and would have committed suicide had a stubborn refusal not to leave my daughters motherless given me a small handhold on life. Eventually that lifted, but a pervasive lack of hope settled in its place. I fulfilled job responsibilities to the best of my ability, and cared for friends and family when I could, but I did not expect to be blessed, not in this life.

Years passed one by one, and I lived them with as much grace and dignity as I could muster. And then, I found myself seeking work yet again — and I was terrified by the prospect. What if I made another devastatingly bad decision? Would I survive it? I tried to find a spiritual director who could help me discern God’s will, but wasn’t successful in finding one who could understand that, for me, job hunting was a spiritual undertaking.

Before I made the decision to move in 2006, I was in what St. Ignatius of Loyola would have called a profound period of spiritual consolation. God taught me in new ways, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with himself and lifting me up with joy unlike anything I had experienced previously. When I chose to accept the proffered position and move, that came abruptly to an end and I didn’t know why. Why had God hidden himself from me?

During the dry years that followed, I was faithful in prayer, attended Mass religiously and became involved in parish activities, but did not experience again that joy — until shortly after I found myself unemployed yet again. I attended a weekend retreat for women and found my heart spontaneously opening to God’s love, spontaneously surrendering to that love. I abandoned myself completely to God in that moment. Over and over, I murmured, “Anything, Lord, anything.” Because an employment decision had abruptly ended a period of consolation in 2006, the one which faced me following the retreat had profound significance.

Somehow, I managed to bumble through the indecision and fear. Rather than make another major change, I took a job for which I was overqualified in order to pay bills and decided to wait for clarity. It came. It did not come quickly, but it came in that quiet, roundabout way God likes to use. At a church meeting I attended, a visiting priest suggested I read THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING by James Martin, SJ. Through reading that book, I began to learn how to discern the movement of God in my life, and the next time I was faced with making a major decision, I was able to do so in a way that filled me with peace. Did everything fall neatly into place? No, not really, but I am at peace in the decision and have enough confidence to continue striving toward the goals set.

So what does any of this have to do with spiritual foreshadowing? (And what, exactly, is spiritual foreshadowing?) In literature, authors give hints of what is to come, hints which a sensitive reader can intuit; English teachers call it “foreshadowing” when teaching students to loathe the novel. In looking back at 2006, and the decision which haunted me for so many years, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t giving me a few hints — if he wasn’t showing me how it felt to draw close and how it felt to turn aside. Perhaps the decision itself was not actually wrong, but was in truth right — right because it opened my heart and life to be shaped by God.

And, as God says after each act of creation in Genesis, it is good — all of it.

Seamless Whole

“They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be.’” (John 19:23-24)

It’s all of one piece … like the robe our Lord wore … one piece … my life.

That’s what I wrote in my journal this morning. Now, I must discern what it means and how I am to live it.

(Before I start, though, let me say: God bless St. Ignatius and the Jesuits with all of their wonderful ministries! I have come to this place primarily due to their ministries: books by Jesuit authors, like Father James Martin whose books BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF and THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING changed the way I understood my gifts and my relationship with God; the SACRED SPACE devotionals by the Irish Jesuits, from which I learned to pray with Scripture; and now the pray-as-you-go.org website by the Jesuit Media Initiative in London, which has transformed my morning drive time into a grace-filled sanctuary. If it is true that we reap what we sow, let them reap abundantly for the seeds they sow are blessed with the living presence of the living  God.)

But back to this morning, and my journal. A glimmer… an intuition of something as of yet unrevealed … has been flitting just out of reach for a time. I cannot clearly identify when I became aware of it. I no longer have time to sit daily with my prayer journal open before me and record what comes to me as I open heart and mind to God. On the days when I do write, the notes are made in haste, a paragraph or two where once I would have written a page or two.

Late last month, I wrote, “What strikes me is that while I do not know why God has allowed my life to be touched by so much darkness — interior as well as exterior — the darkness did not shape me, at least not in the sense of warping me or making me crooked. Rather, the darkness has in some way purified me so that I can begin to reflect God and his love into the world.” That intentional awareness of the way difficulties have blessed me is part of the sense of wholeness I experienced this morning, but not all.

Wholeness has seemed, for much of my life, to be an unattainable goal — perhaps because I am multifaceted. I can do much, and while some of my skills (such as playing guitar) are rudimentary at best, I can do a great many thing well and a few things exceptionally well. I could not discern from my gifts the course my life should take — the career path I should pursue, the goals I should set for myself. Like the little bird in the children’s book by Philip D. Eastman, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, I asked searching questions everywhere because I longed for the kind of clarity and purpose which seemed to drive others.

But instead of finding direction, I became a tumbleweed, catching first in one place and then another, learning along the way that I had gifts I did not imagine possessing, but discovering as well that I was not nearly as skilled in other areas as I had believed. Twice I experienced life-altering moments of clarity and insight. Once, at the Art Institute in Chicago, as I stood before Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” and thought, “I can do this.” Before I left the museum that day, the original intuition had set into a single thought, “If I don’t paint, my life will be wasted.” For the next eight years, I worked to build an art career, but I allowed myself to be distracted and it slipped away like a silk scarf caught on the wind.

Later, the year I turned 50, I made a 7-day silent retreat, where I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, I needed to imitate the whole Christ. I needed to be Christ feeding the hungry (Matt. 14:19-20), but I also needed to allow myself to be fed (Matt. 25:42-43) — and not just by the Eucharist. I needed more reciprocal relationships in my life, friendships in which I both gave and received, instead of the unhealthy imbalance which existed. I had a tendency to care for every emotional waif who passed through my life — nurturing, mentoring, feeding, tending wounds — without counting the cost, but counted or not, the toll had to be paid. Over and over, depression would wrap its arms around my neck and I would fall; over and over, others to whom I gave little or nothing would lift me up and carry me with their love and support.

The intuition of wholeness which grows within me encompasses these insights, includes them, but extends beyond them. “What is of God endures … not only in the world, but within us,” I wrote in my spiritual journal earlier this month in response to Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin in Acts. “Be careful,” he said regarding the apostles. “If this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:35,38-39). I heard the words as I listened to the meditation on pray-as-you-go.org, allowed my heart to respond, and then began to take an inventory of what remains in my life — my love of God (flawed though I am in so many ways), the pleasure I take in crafting language,  my unquenchable need to create (to paint, when that is possible), my dedication to being a good mother (and now grandmother), my appreciation of my friends.

I understood better that day how God works in my life — not fully. In this world, we cannot see fully, only in part (I Cor 13:9-10, 12), but that day I saw more clearly — for a moment. And then, with equal clarity, I began to understand God’s abundance in a new way. In reflecting on the “thief of life” following a reading from John’s gospel, the passage in which Jesus says, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), I realized that life drains out of me when my time is consumed by a single endeavor over an extended period of time. God created me with a variety of gifts, and I need opportunities to use those gifts – first this gift and then that — in order to experience his abundance.

All of these flickers of light came together this morning as I listened, for the second time, to Friday’s reading. “And if I go,” Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died, “and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3). In this life, I  asked, how do I come to be where you are? I recalled suddenly standing in a grocery store 30 years ago, talking to a friend. In previous conversations, I’d heard this individual denigrate Red Delicious apples, so I was quite surprised to hear praise regarding the display. Above our heads hung row after row of enlarged pictures of Red Delicious apples. Turning, so we faced in the same direction, I saw instead rows of Golden Delicious apples, which he preferred.

I understood immediately, that I experience God in my life here, in my life now, by changing the way I look at things. And I glimpsed — just for a moment — the wholeness of my life, and God’s hand at work in all of it. The tension in my life, the push and pull, has been a creative tension much like that I experience when I paint, when I create depth and richness through creating layers which resonate with one another. That is how God works in my life, I understood. I could not set apart any of my life experiences without altering who I am, who I have become, how God has shaped me to hunger and thirst for him while desiring equally to reflect him into the world. It is good, I thought. It is all good.

What does this have to do with the tunic Jesus wore? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve turned it over and over in my head and in my heart. I can make facile associations, but they don’t feel authentic once expressed. And so I can only do what we all must do with the uncertainties and mysteries in our lives — wait and pray. And trust in the goodness of God.




Holy Week Reflection: Understanding

“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”  – John 13:7

Yesterday, as I was driving to work, I was being led in prayer by pray-as-you-go.org. A friend referred me to the site a couple weeks ago and I’ve found it perfect for my morning drive — a little music, a Scripture reading and a few questions for reflection. I start it in the morning before I shift my pickup into drive and pull away from the curb, and by the time I’m entering the community in which I work, I’m joining in the closing prayer, usually the Doxology.

Yesterday’s Scripture reading was the gospel from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, John 13:1-15. Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet, and Peter — being Peter — objected. I would venture to guess that if the Myers-Briggs had been around back then, and Peter had taken it, he would have been an ENTJ — one of those natural leaders, quick to see patterns and to take charge, quicker to voice opinions and ready to plan for the future. At least, that’s the Peter I see in the gospels: first to verbalize his belief that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt.16:16), quick to make the offer of tents when privileged with the vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:1-4). But, like all leaders, he was not always right — because like all of us, he was human.

As often as I’ve heard this gospel and read it, I’ve never before been struck by what Jesus said to Peter when he objected to having his feet washed. “You don’t have all the information, Peter. You are making a decision based on what you know, but you will learn more in the future which will enable you to understand why I am doing this. Just trust me for now.”

OK, that’s a very loose paraphrase of what Jesus said to Peter, but that’s what I heard as I was listening to the gospel, heard with my heart rather than my ears. And then, the Lord tacked on, “And that goes for you, too, Mary.” A verse from I Corinthians 13 flitted through my mind almost simultaneously: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (v.12).

“Ah, yes,” I thought, “we know in part.”

As I had dressed yesterday, I’d been thinking about work. I knew I had handled my piece, in what I’d seen weeks earlier as a no-win situation, with as much grace as possible, but I derived no satisfaction from seeing matters unravel. I strive for win-win resolutions whenever possible, but I’d not been in a position to exert any influence when decisions were being made. I was simply being swept along by the inevitable turbulence of conflicting expectations, and not in any way enjoying the white water experience.

We know in part. With those few words, I was reminded how often 20/20 hindsight has revealed to me the way in which God was working in the difficult situations of my life — or the way he used those experiences in wondrous ways.

I remembered the night hope sparked in the eyes of the women in my journal-writing workshop as I shared with the class of inmates stories about some of the violence I had experienced in my life. I could see them thinking, “If it didn’t beat her, it doesn’t have to beat me. I can build a better life for myself, too.” I went home that night and thanked God for my dad’s hand across my face, his leather razor strap across my back. I thanked God for the kick my ex-husband leveled at my stomach when I was pregnant and the choker of bruises his hands left around my throat. That pain had been transformed into a gift the moment I knew others had been given hope by knowing I’d walked in their shoes.

I remembered other difficult work situations, other difficult life situations, and the grace I’d received with insights gained years later. I knew in that moment God was asking me to trust him; asking me to say, “Thy will be done;” asking me to forgive those whose decisions had caused such turmoil for me. Jesus was attempting to wash my feet. He had told his disciples when sending them out, “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words — go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet” (Matt10:14). If our lives are to  be our witness, then we, too, must have the grace to simply walk away when our presence is not considered desirable. Jesus was offering to help me walk away, encouraging me to be at peace in doing so.

I experienced all this in far less time than it has taken me to write about it — in the briefest of spaces between spoken words. But, even with this new understanding, I knew no more about God’s plan than I had before listening to the gospel, no more than Peter knew about the night and the future which lay before him when he objected to having his feet washed by Jesus. I was, however, comforted.

Throughout the day, I kept returning to that phrase — “we know in part” — and appreciating anew the mysterious way in which God works. God gives us our lives one day at a time. Like Peter, we want to take charge, we want to decide how things should be done. But like Peter, we can never fully understand what God is doing in our lives. We can only trust him, as Jesus — in his full humanity — trusted our loving Father that night as he knelt before Peter and each of the disciples, knowing what was to come.



Giving Up Nick

I decided to give up Nick for Lent.

Who, pray tell, is Nick? Nick is a man I met a few weeks ago when dining with family.

I haven’t enjoyed a meal so much since  I went out with Jeff for the first time, before I learned he was gay. The dinner Jeff and i shared was leisurely, with good food and even better conversation. At the time, I was a single parent, struggling financially with a low-paying job and attempting to realize my dream of becoming a practicing artist. Still, that dinner filled me with an unexpected longing — not the kind of longing which can be satisfied by an intimate romp, but rather a longing to know and be known. I wanted to see him again and again until we knew one another as well as we knew ourselves.

My understanding of relationship has always been somewhat skewed, in part because my mother provided incredibly poor guidance in this area. When I was 12, I was sexually molested as I walked home from a school event one night. I’d taken the path between the grain bins dozens of times, and wasn’t afraid of the shadowed darkness. I wasn’t afraid of the young man who stepped out of the darkness, either. I lived in a small town. I knew the name of every student in my school, including his. However, I was upset when he began to kiss and touch me; I twisted and tried to pull away, but didn’t succeed. 

I did not like the young man; I did not want him to touch me. Increasing my anxiety was my faith; I had learned in religious education that we were not to allow ourselves to be touched, and so I knew what was happening was sinful. When I got home, I went immediately to tell Mom. She was sitting at her sewing  machine. She lifted a cigarette from the ashtray as she turned to me, and took a deep drag as words burst from my mouth, as my experience of being violated spilled from my lips. She  was smiling by the time she exhaled. “That’s how boys show they like you,” she said, and brushed aside my  concerns about sin. I hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t need to worry about confessing it.

I learned nothing about the beauty of human sexuality from that experience or her lesson. It took me years, and work with a therapist, to truly understand that healthy relationships don’t begin with sex, that no man has the right to touch me unless I want him to touch me, and that my religious scruples are not to be discounted. For years, in a misguided attempt to find a man with whom I could build a life, I allowed boys and then men to touch me, and in doing so, came to loathe myself. I discovered firsthand the wide chasm between genuine relationship and all of the self-gratifying ways men and women come together.

I didn’t know how to bridge the chasm between what I’d lived and what I wanted, so I chose to be celibate. By the time Jeff came along five or six years later, I’d stopped looking for love. I was focused on raising my girls to be healthy, well-adjusted young women, and I had discovered a passion for art which was consuming me. Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, with that dinner, the desire for relationship was resurrected. I began to fantasize about ways to merge our lives, and began to make decisions which would lay a foundation for this. By the time I learned my dream could never become a reality, our friendship had taught me a great deal about relationship, about trust and faithfulness, about comfort and kindness, about love.

But it also made me vulnerable. Having so much only made me want more; I wanted it all — the kind of friendship I enjoyed with Jeff, physical intimacy and commitment. I began to date again in a misguided attempt to have it all. It didn’t work. I was battered and bruised — emotionally, not physically — when I again chose celibacy. That was 15 years ago — 15 years during which my precious daughters grew into women; 15 years during which my passion for art waxed and waned, only to wax again like the moon in the night sky; 15 years during which I’ve moved six times in an effort to find a place where I can put down roots, a place I can call home.  

St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” I’ve come to see the restlessness as my calling and my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith which teaches me so I can be a sensitive companion to others in need. I reflect on my life in prayer and in journals, and then when I sense another could benefit from what I’ve learned, I share relevant experiences. My love for Jeff still lies so close to my heart that I rarely share those stories; they are too precious.

Why now and what does any of this have to do with Nick? Dinner with him evoked the same longing I experienced more than 20 years ago when I dined with Jeff, the longing to know and be known, the longing to see him again. I laughed at myself at the time. “I’m too old for this,” I thought. But I discovered longing acts a bit like a red sock in a washer load of whites. Agitator action pulls it down, out of sight, and then it resurfaces unexpectedly only to be pulled down again.

Although my friendship with Jeff is a gift and grace in my life, I have decided to act this time on the “He’s Just Not That Into You” principle — “if a guy wants to be with a girl, he will make it happen.” When the red sock surfaces, I say, “Oh! There’s the red sock again,” and I turn my mind to other things. It’s an odd Lenten fast, I know, but since it is leading me to act differently than I have acted in the past, it feels like the right one.

Only God knows why.

The Awakening

“When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”  John 19:30

The suffering was over.

The long day on the cross — Mark’s gospel says it was 9 a.m. when they crucified Jesus (15:25) and it was sometime after 3 p.m. according to all accounts when he died. The long night preceding — a night of prayer and betrayal, abandonment and beating, a night during which he stood alone before those in power condemned by those who should have allied themselves with him. The days and weeks leading up to that clandestine flurry of activity — days and weeks when fear grew among those who sought to be faithful to the covenant and did not understand the way in which Jesus was re-envisioning the Law for them. It was finished.

He could do no more. Not then. Not through the Incarnation, his fully human, fully divine presence among the people of Israel. And yet, in that moment, in letting go, he did not abandon his ministry or those he loved, although no one understood it at the time. They could not because in Jesus, God was working in a new way, one which led to Resurrection and the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world today.

Often these days I attempt to enter into the stories, attempt to be present through my imagination in a way which enables me to experience the living presence of Jesus. This one, though, I do not need imagination to experience because like so many other people, I’ve experienced painful endings, times when the life I had worked to build was torn from me. In recent months, I’ve come to see how God was shaping me with those circumstances, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with him, working to ensure my heart was not hardened by goals and values which would have prevented me from serving Him with a heart pliant with love. I’ve come to see those endings as transformational new beginnings.

I am grateful for this understanding, grateful to be standing on this threshold — and yet I feel somewhat disoriented. For years, I’ve engaged in regrets about my past and imagined the life I might have lived had I made different choices. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to a Catholic college instead of a state university after graduating from high school. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to work instead of college and avoided the burden of student loan debts. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I managed to complete the degrees necessary to teach at a university, which was my dream at one time.

But, in coming to see my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith, I find I must let go of these regrets. They must be, for me, finished, if I am to embrace the wisdom of God’s hand at work in my life, and if I am to be open to the new life which follows endings in God’s natural order of things. Setting aside habits of thought is no easy task, though. I am guileless as Mary in this. “How can this be?” she asked the angel who visited her (Luke 1:34). She had not been with a man, and could not imagine conceiving a child in any other way. “How can this be?” I ask. I have lived so long with the inner barrenness of regrets, I cannot imagine living with hope and the assurance of a fruitful life.

Fortunately, I am not alone in seeking answers to this question. Others have gone before me and have marked the way. Among them is Sister Joan Chittister, who wrote an especially relevant book called FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY. I have been reading if off and on for several months, mulling over passages that seemed to have been written especially for me, and have finished it tonight. In the final chapter, she writes, “determining what we are meant to do with our lives will necessarily unfold slowly and tentatively. Just was we grow slowly and tentatively, so will our understanding and awareness of what we are meant to do.”

She then provides guidance for discerning what we are meant to do. Chittister says we’ll have a natural aptitude for the work and a passion for it. In addition, we’ll see it as meaningful. “God did not finish creation,” she wrote, “God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood.” She said we must trust that God is leading us to find our calling, and must ourselves be both patient and committed.

I think I can do that.  I’ve already seen God at work in my life with 20/20 hindsight. Now, I just need to turn around and look to the future, the future of hope he promised long ago.

The Blessing of Humility

“Behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49)

Once, a long time ago, I  saw God weaving the strands of our lives into the tapestry of life. I saw the way he entangled our lives with one another and how beautiful it was. I saw the way dark threads were needed to give shape to the patterns woven with golden threads. I saw it clearly without actually seeing it at all.

That’s the nature of epiphanies. We experience them with such intensity they begin to shape our lives, but they sound like fantasies when we attempt to share them with other people. I know now that Mary was speaking out of a mystical experience such as this when she praised the Lord with those words. I have to admit that for years I did not appreciate this.

I’m Catholic. Mary is revered in our church. She may not be part of the Holy Trinity, but she’s right up there with God, having been crowned Queen of Heaven. Millions (I would guess) are devoted to her, a devotion that arose in the Middle Ages when the  Black Plague was seen as God’s hand of justice, and it was believed a mother would be more merciful and could intercede with her son.

When I began to read  the Bible, I brought to my interpretation that experience, and I thought, “Heavens! She was arrogant!” Catholics did come to call her blessed — Blessed Mother, Blessed Virgin Mary — but why would she claim this for herself? Wouldn’t  it have shown a more becoming humility to refrain from bragging like this? Eventually, I came to appreciate that she wasn’t claiming a title for herself, but was instead expressing with greatest humility wonder at the way God was working in her life.

This morning, I, too, feel blessed. I decided shortly before Advent that I would read through the Bible this year. For close to a decade, my daily devotions have involved reflecting on one or more of the Catholic church’s daily readings, which include an Old Testament reading, Psalm and Gospel reading. I also went through Jeff Cavin’s “The Great Adventure” (which I cannot in good conscious recommend) which gave me an overview of the Bible’s main plotline. But, I’ve never read the whole thing, and for several years I have felt a desire to do so.

I began with Genesis on the first Sunday in Advent and have reached Deuteronomy. I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Reading Leviticus and Numbers was like sloughing through mud, and a brief summary of Deuteronomy led me to believe that it was more of the same. Instead, I’ve found a beautiful love letter from God to his people. Moses reminded the people that “your God carried you, as a man carries his child, all along your journey” (Deut. 1:31). He told them that when they were disobedient, “Yet there too you will seek the Lord, your God; and you shall indeed find him when you search after him with your whole heart and your whole soul” (Deut. 4:29).

This morning, I read, “He will love and bless and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the produce of your soil, your grain and wine and oil, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks” (Deut. 7:13) and I experienced my life as blessed. Too often, I’ve fallen into accepting the myth promoted in our country that wealth and financial security are the only measures of a life. But this morning, again, I was reminded that I am among those whom God calls to walk in faith, and it would be an act of pride and hubris to attempt to use American standards of wealth and security to weigh my life.

Instead, I need to look at the blessings he has poured into my life — my beloved daughters, the fruit of my womb, and all of the other fruit my life has produced: art and poetry, success in the lives of those I’ve mentored, organizations strengthened (at least temporarily) by the work of my hands. I wish I could say I’ve never hurt anyone — and it would be true to say I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone — but I know, especially when I was young and dizzy from the bombardment of life experiences for which I was woefully unprepared, I did injure others. I hope they, and God, have forgiven me. I also hope I can say with honesty that I have more often acted with generosity than selfishness. This morning that feels true.

This morning.

I look through the slats of the louvers which cover my bedroom windows and see cold rain fall from gray sky — an answer to prayer in a region where drought conditions have threatened the water supply. Some, I know are undoubtedly complaining about the inconvenience of these damp days. I, though, am grateful for this life-giving rain. “This is my life,” I think, cold illusion masking all that gives life. Looking through the slats of the louvers, I am warmed by the inner knowledge of God’s love, a love I can see if I look through the eyes of faith. This morning, I know even more than ever why Mary could cry out with joy and humble gratitude, “All ages will call me blessed.” I, too, feel blessed.

A Shepherd’s Tale

I was stargazing again, though my son David said our eyes should be upon the sheep. “Wolves do not fall from heaven, they creep from the shadows of the land,” he would say when he caught me looking at the heavens. But the movement of the stars overhead always filled me with wonder. Night after night, they moved from east to west, seemingly the same, but slowing changing from season  to season. My grandfather told me long ago that the movement of the stars is like the movement of our lives: subtle and beautiful. He said we can learn patience from watching the stars. Perhaps that is true for some, but it has not been true for me.

On this night, I was fascinated by something I had not seen before. One star shone more brightly than all the others. It was as though a nail had pierced the darkness and light poured through from the great beyond. Even the moon’s light was never so pure, so white, so wholly without compare. ‘What can this be?’ I asked myself. ‘What can this mean?’

“Do not be afraid.” I heard the voice behind me and swung around, raising my staff so that I held it between my hands to ward off any blows the man might aim at me. It was an absurd reflex. Had he wished to harm me, I would have been dead. He had moved with such stealth I had not heard so much as a stone shift beneath his feet. And then the words which startled me became more than a sense of sound; they communicated to my startled mind meaning. “Do not be afraid.”

Slowly, moving in quietly from both sides, so they could asses the situation before joining me and leaving the flock vulnerable, David and the others approached. Keeping his distance, readying himself to battle any who had come to steal that which had been entrusted to us, David called to me, “What does he want, this stranger who roams in the night?”

The man turned to David. Suddenly his face glowed like that of a maiden in love, and the light of the moon showed he was barefaced, like one too young to wear a man’s beard. This confused me because he was built like a man, tall, with shoulders that could have carried even a ram. Another anomaly in this night of mysteries, I thought. He drew back his lips and smiled with delight, like one tasting the sweetness of honey for the first time.

“I proclaim to you good news,” he said, and the tenor of his voice filled me with anticipation. I knew  in that moment my life was changing forever. My breath halted in my chest. What would his announcement be?

“News of great joy,” he continued, and my heart beat loudly in my chest, “that will be for all people.” I could not breathe. Was this man a prophet? Had he come to summon me as once the mighty King David been summoned from his flock? Had the time long awaited come? I began to tremble. Fear of what the Lord might be calling me to do filled my heart. ‘Yes’ and ‘not me’ clung to one another in that moment.

“For today, in the city of David, a savior has been born,” he cried out in exaltation. “For you!” he continued. I was fleetingly disappointed, but relief then filled me like a deep breath only to be replaced by stunned amazement. A savior has been born for me, a lowly shepherd? I turned to look at David, expecting his sensible voice to break the man’s spell, but David was as shocked as I. “For me?” His mouth formed the words, but no sound came from his lips. I looked to the others and could see that like me, each believed this man had spoken to him. One by one, he caught our eyes and in his gaze I saw affirmation. Yes, he had spoken to all of us and to each of us.

“He is Messiah and Lord,” the stranger said, his voice firm with certainty and wonder and the joy of which he had spoken. I knew he believed this to be true, and in that moment, not even wondering why a God who always called men to lead his people would choose a vulnerable newborn, I believed as well. A savior, I thought. Praise God! A Messiah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I began to worship God’s holy name.

But the man had not said all he had come to say. “This will be a sign for you,” he said, as though we had been arguing with him, as though our hearts had not already told us the truth of his words. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

“No!” my mind screamed. I was suddenly alert and disoriented, as though I’d been wakened from a dream with a loud scream. The infant should be at his mother’s breast, not in a manger, I thought. What kind of fool does not know this? Does not know the baby needs his mother’s warmth and she the baby’s suckling to stop the bleeding?

Suddenly the man was joined by others like himself, a growing crowd which began to chant as though in the synagogue, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” As they worshiped God, I made my way to David. I could see in his eyes that like me, he knew all was not well.

“Let us go then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” he said. I nodded. The child’s welfare had been entrusted to our care. As he spoke, the stranger and his friends departed, faded away as though they had been the waking dream of a tired man. We knew we could not leave the sheep unattended, and so it was decided that David, Moishe and I would go to Bethlehem.

We had no trouble finding the child. The stable was outside the city walls and his frail cry filled the night, as plaintive as a bleating lamb. Outside a man squatted by the door with his head in his hands. He was weeping with despair. As we approached, he looked up and whispered hoarsely, “Go away. Let them die in peace.”

His stupidity filled me with anger and I would have called  the man a fool, but David, knowing my temper, grabbed my arm to silence me. “Why do you say that?” he asked, his voice taking on the timbre of one in the marketplace preparing to bargain with a shopkeeper for a garment made of inferior wool, but sold as the finest. The fool, we learned, was a carpenter who knew nothing of birthing, who believed the long and painful laboring, the opening of his wife’s body and all that followed meant his wife lay dying. “No man suffering as she suffered could live,” he sobbed. “Oh! God! Why have you done this to my little Mary?” he cried out.

I exchanged glances with David and Moishe. They urged him to walk with them, and as they headed into the night, I entered the stable cautiously, not knowing what to expect. A light glowed in one of the stalls. I crept toward it. As the stranger had said, the baby was clumsily wrapped and lay in the manger, his head misshapen by the birthing. Poor thing, I thought. No effort had been made to clean or dry him. I picked him up carefully, sliding one hand under his head as I lifted him, and tucked him beneath my robe to warm him with my own body’s heat.

Then, I squatted beside his mother and brushed the hair back from her forehead. A woman should be here, I thought, with this child who gave birth to a child. What can an old man do for her? She turned her head and opened her eyes. She was so exhausted, her face registered no surprise when she saw me. She simply closed her eyes again. That was not good.

“Wake up!” I said sharply, and added unkindly, “What kind of lazy woman are you? Why do you sleep when there is work to be done?” As I had suspected, she had been raised well and made an effort to rise, to begin fulfilling her daily duties though exhaustion tugged at her.

“No, no,” I said brusquely. “Just lay on your side and feed this wailing child.” She was so young, she did not know what to do, but my wife had given birth to more than one child, and I instructed her. Before she could sleep agaiin, I urged food and wine from my pouch upon her. She needed the nourishment, I knew. When none remained, I let her sleep. I could do no more, I knew. She needed a woman.

When David and Moishe returned with the man, I told him this. He shook his head. None would come, he said. “Only Elizabeth, her cousin in Judah, believes Mary when she says that he has not been with a man.”

At this, I lost patience with the man. He’d left a healthy child and its mother to died because he was too stupid to care for them. Now, he was babbling like an idiot. “Of course, she’s been with a man, you imbecile,” I said scornfully. “A ram must mount the sheep for her to lamb.”

“No,” he insisted,” she has not.” He told us of a dream he’d had. He told us of his decision to go to Elizabeth’s house to talk with Mary. He shook his head as he recalled the bizarre story she had told him about the beardless stranger who had said she would conceive a son by the power of the holy Spirit. “I said to her, ‘How can this be?’” the man said. “She had not been looking at me, but  she looked at me then. Her troubled eyes met mine, and she whispered,’That’s what I asked him when he said I would bear a son.’ Then she began to weep and said, ‘I did not know it would be so hard, that I would be so alone.’ I knew then that I must do what I had been told in the dream to do, but both of our families turned their backs on us. And I have not always known what to do.”

That is obvious, I thought.We sat together for a long time — the man, whose name was Joseph, and I. David and Moishe, I had sent back to the sheep. I turned over the events of the night in my mind, and as dawn’s first hint of pink skimmed across the horizon, I told Joseph what had brought us to him. I told him that I did not understand the mysterious ways of God, but that I believed God had sent me to help  him. I told him how to care for the woman and her son. 

All of us, I had realized, must do our part if the Savior is to live and grow in our midst. All of us. In all generations.