Tweaked by God

I just put on a pot of coffee — my second of the day. Fortunately, I just have a four-cup coffee maker, so that’s not quite as bad as it sounds.

I put on the first this morning when I got up. By the time I’d fed the cats and scooped their litter, the coffee was ready, so I sat down for a little one-on-one time with God before Mass. It was good. He offered me the comfort I needed.

And I did need comfort. I received another rejection first thing this morning. On Friday, I’d also received a couple, including one for a position which would have fit my lifestyle so well that I had hoped it was God’s tailor-made Christmas present for me. Obviously, I was wrong and am being asked to continue living by faith, to continue trusting that God is at work in my life in his inimitable manna-in-the-desert way.

Last night, as I was entering into remembrance in a way that also nourishes the connection I feel with our Creator God (by working on a scrapbook project recording this journey of faith), I realized I was being emptied. One by one, expectations are being knocked out from under me.

During my final weeks with my former employer, God had drawn me to himself in a new way. He helped me to understand I did not see myself as he saw me. I had grown to see myself as our society sees me and people like me, as disposable. I was not well-connected, so I could be tossed aside. I did not have personal wealth — or the power that comes with wealth — so I could be treated with disrespect.

But during those balmy September days when I last drew an income for services rendered, God began to show me I was well-connected, I was his. He called upon me to trust him in this, and I did. When I was treated with abysmal disrespect in the workplace, I declined to continue working for employers whose conduct conflicted with what God was teaching me.

I expected all to be well in ways that I would easily see and understand. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was filled with peace and joy, so I believed my choice was the right one.

In the weeks which have elapsed since then, I have seen one expectation after another fall by the wayside. I expected to collect unemployment since South Dakota law allows voluntary termination if the employer’s conduct “demonstrates a substantial disregard of the standards of behavior the employee has a right to expect of the employer” (SDCL 61-6-13). While unemployment compensation was approved, a family crisis prevented me  from hiring an attorney when my former employer appealed, and the decision was overturned.

Without the security of a regular income while I sought employment, I expected God to move with haste to open doors so that I would soon be employed. I continued to apply for positions which appeared to be a good match for my skills and abilities as well as for my experience. However, even when I felt an interview went well, I did not receive a  job offer.

So, here I am today, three months later — still unemployed. I admit I have had some blue days. And days when I’ve wondered if God really did call me to step out in faith or if I was simply fed-up with a job that was about as satisfying as instant coffee in cold water.

On those days, it’s stepping into the quiet that renews my faith God is at work in my life. On those days, I remember all that he has done during this period of unemployment and feel blessed.

Each day since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve had all I need; God has worked in the hearts and minds of those who love me, prompting them to help out. While I have been unemployed, God has filled me with his peace and worked to heal places in me that I didn’t even know needed healing. During this time, I’ve been able to help family members who needed the kind of assistance my presence could provide.

Since deciding to step out in faith, to trust that I am a beloved daughter, I find myself called ever more deeply into the mystery of his love, which is a humbling experience. It simultaneously fills and empties. I am filled with hope in the face of uncertain circumstances, filled with the desire to give more and more of myself to him. I am emptied of the need to be seen as a person of worth as measured by our society.

When I write, sometimes I need to tweak the language a little to express more clearly what I wish to say. When I paint, I may need to tweak the color or composition of a painting in order to make it more successful. At present, I feel like I am a work in progress, and God is tweaking me with infinite love.

I just hope that as he works, my life comes to reflect him into the world more and more.

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New Life

Christmas Eve morning 2011

Katie is asleep in my bed. I’ve done dishes which were piled in the sink from yesterday, fed the cats and taken my turn on a few games of Words with Friends on my iPhone. This is normally my prayer time, but I find myself recalling something I wrote in my prayer journal on Wednesday and decided to share a few thoughts first.

In his book “He Touched Me: My Pilgrimage of Prayer,” John Powell, S.J. wrote, “The real gift of love is self-disclosure. Until we have given that, we have given nothing.” This meditation is a gift of love.

It may make some readers uncomfortable. I apologize in advance, and encourage you to stop reading if you find yourself becoming angry. Stretched to the point of reflection is good, and may be a blessing in the long run. However, finding yourself so far out of your comfort zone that you become angry is not. Trust what you are feeling, and find something else to read or do. Don’t  continue to read.

Having said that, I’m not sure where to start. Do I start with the wounds, with the healing or with my reason for sharing this with you? The easiest starting place would be sharing my reflection from Wednesday.

My spiritual director currently has me reflecting on a passage in Luke’s gospel — the healing of the blind beggar (Luke 18:35-43). Each day, I read that passage and ask God to let me hear his voice, to let me know what he would have me understand. On Wednesday, I was struck by the final verse: “He (the blind beggar) immediately received his sight and followed him (Jesus), giving glory to God. When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.”

In response, I wrote: “When Jesus passes by, he changes lives. And when we see this, our faith is renewed.

“Lately, I have felt touched by the hand of God. I have felt a miracle unfolding in my life — the healing, especially from shame; the peace in the midst of uncertain circumstances; the deep sense of surrender I experienced at the (Diocesan Women’s) retreat (at Outlaw Ranch in October); the grace to hear God’s call and answer; this time to become centered. It’s all part of the miracle of God transforming me from the inside out, cleaning me up so that I can better reflect him into the world.

“This miracle is not for me alone. This miracle is for God’s people. This miracle is so that I can lead people to him, point people to him, help people to know his deep and abiding love for them.”

His love his deep and his love is abiding.

I know that on this Christmas Eve morning in a new way, because this week I have been healed in places I didn’t know needed healing. When I went forward last Sunday at the healing Mass to be anointed, I was asking God to heal a deep inner shame, a shame which shaped my worldview, a shame which prevented me from seeing his will for  my life.

The roots lay in childhood, in second grade, to be exact. My dad’s sister had come to visit. She lived in another state and I had no memory of having met her previously. I wanted her to like me. My family had moved to my dad’s hometown just a year earlier, and I had not found making friends there to be easy, so being liked by my aunt was incredibly important to me.

During her visit, we visited some elderly relatives whose lifestyle was somewhat primitive. They still used an outhouse and did not have running water in the house beyond a pump in the kitchen. Corncobs were used to heat the stove which was used for cooking and baking. I’d always enjoyed visiting, though, because I enjoyed playing with the antique toys which were so unlike my own.

However, that visit was different. After dinner, Mom told me to help my great aunt with dishes. I helped with dishes at home and was willing. However, when I went into the kitchen, I didn’t know what to do. At home, we did dishes in the sink with a tub for washing and a tub for rinsing. My great aunt, who had been crippled by polio, didn’t have a sink for dishes. I didn’t know how to help. While she bustled around, filling a tea kettle by ladle from a bucket and setting it on the stove to heat, I was at a loss to know my role.

I went into the dining room to tell my mother. Mom was engaged in conversation and did not want to hear what I had to say. She observed that I was being disobedient in not helping with dishes and sent me out to the car. It was fall and dark and I was scared, but I knew better than to rebel against the punishment. As I sat in the car, I cried with shame and helplessness. I had been willing. I just hadn’t known what to do.

Out of that experience grew twin fears that shaped me. The first emerged directly: that I wouldn’t know what to do, do the wrong thing and be punished. As a result, I became hesitant about trying new things. I would watch others and participate only after I  thought I understood what was expected. Sometimes I didn’t participate at all, because I couldn’t figure out what was expected.

Reading became both a refuge and my instruction manual for life. Sometimes, though, what I read and what I experienced conflicted. That led to the second shaping fear: that a fundamental misunderstanding about something  important would lead me to make a gross error that would change my life — which is exactly what happened.

I was 12 when the seeds for that fear were sown. I had read about St. Maria Goretti, an Italian girl who was stabbed and died while attempting to thwart a rapist, and I wanted to emulate her. However, as I was walking home from a school dance one night, I was sexually molested by a high school boy. When I told my mother, she provided me with the only instruction she ever gave me on relationships. She told me  boys showed they liked girls by treating them that way.

I went to bed and cried. The experience had left me feeling soiled, not liked, and what Mom said was not what I had believed after reading about St. Maria Goretti. I was confused and ashamed. High school didn’t provide me with the opportunity to gain any better understanding of male-female relationships.  Later, after Mom died and I left home, I would remember what she said, and become a girl who didn’t say, “No.” My first experience of intercourse was having two drunk strangers enter an apartment I shared with three other girls and take turns with me. I didn’t even learn their names, but being liked, even for a little while, was better than having no one at all love me.

Ten years later, a gifted therapist helped me understand Mom had been wrong. No one had the right to touch me without my permission, and touch was an expression of affection only in an existing relationship. In the years since then, I’ve  lived celibate for the most part. A  couple times I entered into relationships, but they were short-lived and disappointing. 

I suspect I was too wounded by the dark years to have the capacity for healthy intimacy. I know the dark years had the tragic effect of permanently severing my relationship with my dad. Recently, I found a letter in which he called me a tramp and said he couldn’t be proud of my children because they didn’t have a decent mother. I cried when I read the letter. I cried for myself, for the pain his bluntness caused, for the way my children suffered because of my personal shortcoming, and for dad. He must have been deeply hurt by  my actions. The result was a rift that never healed, even though I attempted to rebuild a relationship with him when I found some semblance of stability in my own life.

But, I’ve come to realize other areas of my life were affected as well. This past week, I was reflecting on my experience in formation 10 years ago, and could see how those dark years affected that experience, too. I had hoped that by joining a religious order, I could stop living a divided life, a life in which work and faith were separate from each other. I also hoped to find community. I was tired of being a woman alone, exhausted to the bone by the responsibility of it. Too, I think I was called.

I think I am called, but I have no idea what that means at this juncture in my life. I can see now that the religious order I chose was probably not a good fit for me. I admired the women and their work; I believed I could be a contributing member of the congregation. But, I didn’t experience community in the way I desired. I spent nearly two years in formation without forging a single friendship. In part, that was due to the way the vocations director managed those of us seeking to enter religious life. However, I suspect that had any spark of mutual appreciation existed between me and sisters I met in passing, we would have managed to become friends regardless of the way formation was structured.

No, the reciprocal spark of appreciation simply wasn’t part of that experience. However, I stayed the course, even though the vocations director kept encouraging me to consider other options, because I felt called — and, I suspect now, out of a deeper need. I wanted a new start, a fresh start. Unconsciously, I wanted to replace the identity I carried in my heart of being an unlovable daughter with a new identity.  I wanted to become a beloved daughter, and something in me said evidence of this would be living a vowed life.

Withdrawing from formation was a painful decision for me, one that has haunted me for the past decade. Until this past week, though, I had not made the connection between that experience and my relationship with my dad — or seen how my poor mother had unintentionally planted the seeds which caused me to be alienated from my only living parent after she died. But I do see these things now. The blindness that I asked to be healed on Sunday has been healed.

Too, the shame which has haunted me and shaped me for decades has been healed. On this Christmas, God has given me new life, not just in the birth of his son, but in the birth of new possibilities within me, possibilities I could have have seen or embraced without the gift of his healing, without the gift of his love. And so, as an expression of that love, I share this with you with the hope that he will bring healing into your life in the same way and you will respond with love by glorifying his name.

Fear Not

To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t poison myself.

At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached three hours after eating a bowl of chili. No nausea. No vomiting. No stomach cramps. No diarrhea. I could probably eat another bowl tomorrow, if I’d like.

And I may, whether I’d like to or not. I have a hard time wasting food under any circumstances — probably due to my grandmother’s influence. These days, I am even more likely to stretch my leftovers and to eat them before I indulge in preparing something fresh.

That frugality, however, planted the seeds of fear regarding food poisoning. Yesterday, I started some chili for a potluck at church. Since I make mine with pinto beans instead of kidney beans, that means throwing the ingredients in a crockpot in the morning and letting it simmer all day.

Unfortunately, when it was time to head for the potluck, the beans were still hard — not as hard as they’d been at 7:30 a.m., but definitely crunchy. I decided not to take it. By bedtime, the beans still weren’t soft, so I decided to let the chili simmer overnight. By this morning, it was cooked to my satisfaction, so I put the chili in the refrigerator.

Over the course of the day, I started wondering why the chili took so long to cook. One possibility was the beans were old, that perhaps they’d been unearthed at the back of a cupboard when the kitchen was packed for my move and probably should have been thrown out. Another was my crockpot wasn’t functioning properly and the temperature wasn’t adequate to cook the beans.

The latter is what led me to the fear of food poisoning. I could have inadvertently prepared a culture for some kind of bacteria which would make me very sick. A sensible person with that fear would probably have thrown the chili away, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Instead, I ate a small bowl as a test.

What I find myself wondering at present is how many of our fears — or, at least, my fears — are the result of the imagination working overtime? If some of the fears that create barriers are imagined, how can they be managed?

The only answer I have sounds glib, but is not — by trusting God.

I have lived most of my life with fear as a companion — and made poor decisions out of that fear. I know the roots. My parents, both of whom are deceased, instilled that fear with free use of the razor strap as a disciplinary tool and rules their own fears generated. Since punishment for breaking the rules involved being struck with the razor strap, there was no room for boldness — at least not for me.

Losing Mom while still in high school didn’t help, especially since Dad’s temperament and hearing disability didn’t enable him to help us in any way navigate grief. And then, I made such an abysmal mess of those first years after leaving home. For those who haven’t figured this out, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a hell in which you can make mistakes that handicap you for life.

Fortunately, God is good and out of the morass of those years came the sweetest blessings in my life — my daughters. (I should probably note that my grandgirls pretty much tie them in the blessings department these days, but this is about fear, not blessings.) Sadly, even after I started figuring out how life worked, thanks to a gifted counselor, circumstances still cultivated fear in my life. Friends betrayed me. Supervisors (with two incredible exceptions) treated me unfairly. And, it must be confessed, my own poor judgment was sometimes at the root of my difficulties.

However, I am learning these days God does not want fear to maintain a stranglehold on my life. He wants me to trust that He is at work in my life.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel said to Mary (Luke 1:30). “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10). “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to the synagogue official whose daughter is sick (Mark 5:36). “Do not be afraid!” the angel said to the women at Christ’s tomb (Matt. 28:5). This New Testament mantra continues what is found in the Old Testament. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom do I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom am I afraid?” (Ps. 27:1).

But the words themselves aren’t enough. We must not only hear them with our ears and our hearts, we must respond. We must be willing to let go of our expectations and to trust God to work in our lives in unexpected ways. Does this mean we sit back & twiddle our fingers? No.

No, we must each day do what needs to be done. We must each day respond to what God brings into our lives. We must each day open our hearts to God in prayer. We must each day seek his guidance. We must each day be co-creators of our lives, but allowing God to call the shots rather than expecting our will to be done.

Is this easy? Is breaking a lifetime habit ever easy? Not for me, but I am finding it easier than living in fear.

Deception

Appearances are deceiving.

I know; that’s not very original, is it? How many adages are there that communicate that idea? Don’t judge a book by its cover. All that glitters is not gold. Clothes do not make the man. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

My Mom’s favorite was, “Don’t judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” The first time she said that to me, I had no idea what she meant. I tend to take things literally, so I couldn’t imagine what shoes and walking had to do with anything. When Mom explained that people’s decisions often reflect what’s going on in their lives, I was more confused than ever. What did that have to do with shoes and walking?

Eventually, I learned about metaphors in English class and figured out that walking in someone else’s shoes was a metaphor for living their life with all its joys and challenges. It probably took me another 15 or 20 years — well, maybe not that long, but I was an adult — before I understood how much our decisions are influenced by the circumstances of our lives.

This insight was a blessed gift. Until I understood how I had been influenced by the dysfunctional family in which I was raised and by my mother’s death while I was still in high school, I loathed myself for decisions made out of pain and ignorance. When I came to understand that I had done the best I could under the circumstances, I could begin to forgive myself.

Sometimes, though, I still feel like a failure, because of other decisions I’ve made — giving up an art career I spent 10 years to build because someone who later betrayed me persuaded me it was the right thing to do, and giving up a job I loved because some folks had made a mess out of an organization which served abused and neglected children, and for the sake of the children, I thought I should straighten out the mess. Inevitably, when I’ve made self-sacrificing decisions such as those, someone has come along to show me how worthless my puny effort was.

Which brings me to this juncture in my life. Unemployed. No job on the horizon. Funds running out. I am a failure by all objective measures.

This morning, I discovered I was in good company. I was reading about Charles de Foucauld in “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time” by Robert Ellsberg. I’ve been praying de Foucauld’s “Prayer of Abandonment” since a priest gave it to me in spiritual direction seven years ago.

“Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you.
I am ready for all. I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands, I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
For I love you Lord,
And so need to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands,
Without reserve and with boundless confidence,
For you are my Father.”

Uncharacteristically, I didn’t bother learning who this de Foucauld was. I just prayed the prayer. I have to admit that for the longest time I would cringe fearfully when I did so. God seems to be fond of suffering as a tool with which to shape those who surrender to Him, and I was more than a little tired of suffering by that point in my life. Poverty. Abuse. Injustice. Depression. Adversity. Loneliness. I had suffered all of these and more.

While I abandoned myself to God with my words, in my heart I wanted nothing more than peace, security and stability. I didn’t ask God for these things. It seemed wrong to submit to His will on one hand and tell Him what I wanted on the other. Eventually, when I perceived some degree of stability in my life and a little security, the fear eased a little and I could pray de Foucauld’s prayer with some degree of hope.

I imagined him as a Pope John Paul II sort of person — charismatic, visionary in some ways, disciplined in his faith, leading people to love God with greater abandon. Imagine my surprise when I read this morning that de Foucauld “evidently possessed a weak character.” He didn’t do well in school and was dismissed from the Army. He had a powerful conversion while in Morocco when he witnessed Muslim piety, and pretty much spent the rest of his life trying to live out his Catholic faith.

He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, worked for the Poor Clares for a while, entered the Trappists and then left religious life. He spent the last 15 years of his life in the desert writing. Ellsberg wrote, “Foucauld had spent many years conceiving and preparing the way for followers who never arrived, and he might well have died with little sense of accomplishment had his spirituality not trained him to look beyond outward appearances.” After describing the religious orders founded after de Foucauld died which were based on his teachings, Ellsberg wrote, “Alone, A SEEMING FAILURE BY THE END OF HIS LIFE, Foucauld was to become one of the most influential spiritual figures of the twentieth century” (emphasis added).

I find comfort in that. I doubt if I will become an influential anything, but having surrendered completely to God, I have full confidence he will find a way to make use of the gifts he has given me — even if I do end up looking like a failure.

Changing Perspective

I think I am God’s special ed student. You know the one — the one who always needs a little extra attention to learn even the most basic lessons, and will, eight times out of ten, apply the wrong skill set to an assignment.

At least, that’s the conclusion at which I arrived today when I realized He switched liturgical seasons on me. In the past five years, I’ve switched jobs (or found myself unemployed) four times — only once of my own volition. Two of the three employer-choice changes occurred during Lent. The first time, I entered more fully into Christ’s passion than ever before because of the circumstances — betrayal by those I trusted, abandonment by those I considered friends, no real opportunity to defend myself against riled-up accusers. By entering into Christ’s suffering and allowing Him to enter into mine, I found myself on Easter Sunday fully prepared to begin the healing necessary for new life. The second time wasn’t nearly as traumatic. On that occasion, I simply opened myself to the resurrection experience God was bringing into being. I was exhausted from working long hours at a dead-end job for an employer who didn’t even appreciate the effort. I was ready for something new.

That job didn’t last long, though. However, the move brought into my life an experience which is transforming me from the inside out. I found a parish family in which I have begun to experience community. Nearly a dozen years ago I sought to enter religious life, in part because I was hungry for community. I became a lay associate when that door seemed to close simply to be part of some kind of spiritual community. But, for the last four years, I haven’t even had a prayer group and I have been incredibly lonely — even though I’ve had a couple friends with whom I could, from time to time, share my spiritual journey.

Now I have that for which I’ve longed. A few weeks ago, I looked around me at Mass and realized I knew by name everyone with whom I exchanged the sign of peace. I’d met each one through a different church activity. My eyes filled with tears of gratitude. God is so good to me, I thought. God is so good.

His goodness has extended into my life in a new way. He has called me to trust Him as I have never trusted him before. He has called me to surrender not just my heart, but my life to Him. These days, these hours which stretch from first waking awareness to the drowsiness of sleep’s lure, He has asked me to surrender to Him so He can lead me through them.

He is tutoring me patiently. I have to admit, I like the prayer part. I like sitting down at my prayer desk with a cup of coffee to light a candle and begin my devotions. I like meditating on Scripture, sinking into the silence where I can finally hear God’s whisper, writing in my journal about what I am learning. A morning disappears quickly in His company.

I also like puttering around home — doing all those little chores that are a necessary part of life. I’m not nearly so fond of the other stuff — job hunting, figuring out how to pay bills, battling a former employer over unemployment. Those things can tie my stomach in knots and fill me with fear. But God, in His inimitable way, has been teaching me that responsibilities are a gift, too.

Of course, God being God, He’s being creative with His lessons. Words with Friends is a good example. I play this game on my iPhone with four family members — all of whom are better than I am. More than once, I’ve looked at a tray of letters and thought, “I have nothing to play.” Then, I’ll shuffle the letters and a great word will pop out. At those times, I can almost hear God whisper, “See, Mary? It’s just how you look at things.” With that seed planted, some of the tough stuff is slowly becoming easier.

Today, I experienced another one of those kaleidoscopic changes in perspective. The possibility occurred to me that God chose Advent rather than Lent for this set of lessons because He wants me to live this transition with anticipation. That’s a new take on being unemployed, but I’m willing to give it a try. And, it makes sense in light of a recurring motif in my prayer life.

Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mom, and Abraham’s wife Sarah keep coming to mind. Both gave birth late in life after being barren through their childbearing years. I don’t think God is preparing me to bring a child into this world, but I do think he’s telling me, “It’s never too late.” My professional life has been barren (obviously), but God has given me a great many gifts. I think he is preparing me to use them.

So, watch out world! God’s up to something! I can’t wait to tell you about it.