Discouraged

At least my cats love me — I hope.

That’s what I’m telling myself today.

Working at a convenience store is taking its toll in more ways than one. Physically, I live at the edge of exhaustion. Most days — or nights — I work eight to nine hours straight without a break. Very little of that time is spent actually waiting on customers.

Instead, I do the work other employees feel is beneath them  — stocking the coolers (which involves lugging around cases of pop and beer), changing trash bags beside the gas pumps and carrying the bags around the building to the dumpster (what do people throw away? bricks?), cleaning the bathrooms (men, the handle on the urinal is for flushing), putting out backstock, mopping the floor and generally cleaning the store. I also help the manager with special projects such as the twice monthly inventory of merchandise.

By the time I get off work, my back and feet hurt so much I can barely hobble home to collapse in the recliner for a bit after taking some ibuprophen. Then I need to get up and walk around — even though it’s painful — to work off the stiffness or I won’t be able to sleep. My hands are so swollen I had to take off the Black Hills gold ring I’ve worn for more than 20 years.

This morning, my shift ended with an adolescent temper tantrum from the mother of three who hasn’t liked me since I told her a 5 cent per gallon discount on gas is not the same as a 5 percent discount. She claims that’s an indication I don’t show her the respect she deserves.

In all honesty, I may have precipitated this morning’s explosion. Tuesday night’s shift was hectic because an event occurred in town resulting in as much business overnight as the store sees during an entire day during the winter months. In addition, I had the usual cleaning to do and was supposed to get a chunk of the grocery inventory completed. By shifting into high gear, I was able to get most of it done.

“Most” is the operative word in that sentence. I ran out of time before bagging the ice and changing trash bags by the gas pumps. When I got to work last night, I found a snide  little note from the little gal who says I don’t respect her implying I sat around all night and twiddled my fingers.

If I could afford to be unemployed, I would have quit on the spot. But I can’t, so I worked through the night — normal business, all routine tasks finished, another special project for the manager tackled. This morning, when she came in, she started talking about how busy she’d been yesterday and reiterated that I needed to get my work done at night.

I just looked her and said six words, in a quiet but firm voice, “You could have phrased it differently.”

I don’t know if it was the look,  the tone of voice or the implication that she had handled the situation inappropriately — she doesn’t like being corrected — but she quit, throwing a tantrum in front of customers and delivery men. Then she texted the manager, who called and half an hour later she was back behind the register.

That’s the second time this week I’ve had to deal with verbal attacks from an employee, which is taking a toll on my spirit. For the last  couple weeks, the manager and I have been discussing whether to fire an employee who is literally reading on the job instead of working. On one hand, his laziness means others (mostly me, but another employee does help) have their workload increased. On the other, he’s just seasonal so the problem is temporary — and having him around does ease scheduling difficulties.

We finally decided to give him a second chance and to retrain him. When I explained the situation, his first response was that he’d never been told what to do. When I reminded him that I had done so on several occasions, his second response was to say he didn’t know it was important to actually do the work. When I suggested to him the wisdom of doing the work a supervisor tells him to do, he told me he didn’t like my manner.

These experiences, seen in combination with several from the past, have me wondering if (a) God really knew what he was doing when he created me, (b) I’ve committed some unforgivable sin for which I will be forced to do penance for the rest of my life, or (c) I am tragically flawed and unable to see the flaws in my character which prevent me from living in a way that reflects God and his love into the world.

Granted, physical exhaustion is probably distorting reality a little at present. Not only is the job physically taxing, but also the resulting physical discomfort prevents me from getting much sleep. Still, it would be foolish to simply ignore feedback provided by the world.

I live in the world, and as long as I live, must navigate the waters of work responsibilities, financial responsibilities, relationships — and the vagaries of a spiritual journey that not only has me marching to my own drummer half the time, but also sets me at cross purposes to others on occasion. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the knack of doing it well, and am tired. Part of me cries out, like Moses, “If this is the way you will deal with me, THEN PLEASE DO ME THE FAVOR OF KILLING ME AT ONCE, so that I no longer face this distress” (Numbers 11:14).

I strongly suspect God is not going to answer that prayer, though. So, I guess I’ll have to implement Plan B … just put one foot in front of the other — and breathe.

After feeding the cats.

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Inner Compass

Sometimes I’m just tired and sometimes I’m tired of being me. Today I’m both.

With the downward mobility that has become my lifestyle over the years —  from pursuing a dream to working at a series of professional jobs (some of which I enjoyed more than others) to just doing a  job to keep a roof over my head — I now find myself working at a convenience store. I was hired as assistant manager with the understanding that I would be trained to take over various managerial tasks.

To date, the only managerial tasks I’ve taken over have been staff scheduling and weekend bookkeeping. Neither has been an improvment over working behind the register. Weekend bookkeeping  means I work every weekend. Staff scheduling means I’m the scapegoat for staff dissatisfaction with their hours — which gets my goat, because I do what I can to give employees the schedules they want.

Currently, that means I’m working the graveyard shift three or four days a week and days a couple days a week. Because of the split schedule, I am not able to develop a routine, which means I’m not getting the sleep I need for any kind of emotional equillibrium. Molehills are becoming mountains at a fast and furious pace.

Today I’m disgruntled with God, with the way he created me and with the way he has chosen to shape me with life experiences. On good days, I’m grateful. I see his hand at work in my life, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with him, peeling away the distractions one by one until there’s little left but my love for him and my desire to reflect him into the world.

It seems to me, though, he could have made the way easier. One of the impediments to an easier life, one of the crosses I bear, is an inner compass that compels me to do what I believe to be right. Another way to phrase that: I’m stubborn (though a female relative once told me Gales men are stubborn, Gales women are tenacious).

Whether stubborn or tenacious is the correct descriptor is to some extent irrelevant. More to the point is that damned inner compass which either makes me a prophet or an idiot, an inner compass guided by something beyond myself and human understanding.

I was in fourth grade when I first became aware of this compass, though Ididn’t identify it as such at the time. In geography class, we were studying segregation in the South. I was outraged by it, outraged that people could treat one another in this way. Nothing the teacher or my mother could say did one thing to change my attitude. Segregation was  wrong. Period. Non-negotiable.

Racism in any of its subtle guises still offends me. Last December, a catechist at a local church was annoyed with Hispanic members of her parish bcause they had decorated the church for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“It’s Advent,” she said self-righteously. I mentioned cultural differences and the importance of that Marian apparition to the Hispanic population, that Our Blessed Mother had appeared as a poor peasant not as one of the ruling class. “Well, there’s nothing poor about the Hispanics here,” she said, as though hard-earned properity should wipe out their cultural heritage in order to favor hers. Racism in a subtle guise.

Too often these days, that inner compass is leading me to a place outside the mainstream church, at least the church in America. Currently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is leading the charge in the war against President Barack Obama under the guise of standing up for religious freedom. My moral compass says, “This is about politics, not religion.”

Granted, not all of the bishops have hopped on the bandwagon personally, but those who dissent are doing little to stop the conservative bishops from misleading the faithful. Jesus placed healing the sick and caring for the poor above all of the petty religious concerns of his day, and I have no doubt that  for Jesus the issue of birth control would be a petty issue.

The bishops appear to have forgotten that Jesus chastised the Pharisees and the scholars of the Law, saying, “You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk” (Luke 11:44). One of the reasons for condemning them in this way? “You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

For the Magisterium, men who know nothing of the role intimacy plays in a marriage or of the challenges involved in raising a family, to determine that couples should not use birth control is nothing more than indulging in the very act that Jesus condemned: “You impose on people burdens hard to carry.” That is not to deny the spiritual benefits of refraining from the use of artificial contraceptives.

The use of natural family planning can undoubtedly transform the physical intimacy of marriage into another aspect of a couple’s spiritual journey, but those who are not called to grow spiritually in this way, should not be made to feel they are committing a sin. Nor should this issue be used politically.

Too, the Church’s hypocrisy regarding birth control  isn’t lost on me.

The phrase “natural conception to natural death” especially irritates me. In consistently applying this standard, the Magisterium would have to stand against a great many medical procedures that take place in Catholic hospitals every day — among them, open heart surgery, (most surgery, in fact), chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer, insulin injections for diabetics, experimental treatments for disease. None of these  is “natural;” they are all modern efforts to wrestle death from the hands of God.

Why single out married couples and birth control? Why make it into a major political issue, masquerading a political agenda with the guise of religious freedom?

But, on a more personal level, what is to become of me? I cannot endorse what I do not believe. Nor, with the way some bishops are refusing communion to the faithful who speak out against them in matters such as these, can I bring my concerns into the public arena. (Only because my blog has so few readers do I dare express my concerns here.) 

How do I live, needing the grace of the sacraments, but finding myself estranged from a powerful (though misguided) movement within the church? What was God thinking when he gave me this inner compass?

 

Not Funny, God

I’m not laughing, God. This is not funny.

When I finished working the graveyard shift at the convenience store this morning,  and then doing the books (so I wouldn’t have to go back later), I sat back in my recliner with a cup of coffee and my iPhone. As I was scrolling through the news line on Facebook, an article that James Martin, SJ, posted caught my eye.

Of course, Jim (yes, that’s the way the best selling author signs email messages I receive from him periodically) always writes intriguing teasers to invite his 11,918 friends to read articles he posts. In this case, a six-word phrase caught my attention: “…calls for the ordination of women.”

Back in the long ago days when I was a 17-year-old college freshman, I was required to take an interest inventory to help me choose a career field. Although I’ve lost the results, they were so striking as to imprint themselves on my memory. Only one career field stood out above the rest — the priesthood.

Everything else was tumbling around on the lower half of the chart. I was apparently ill-suited for anything else. That was not good news for a Catholic woman attending a state university. Becoming an astronaut was more likely.

I suppose if someone other than the school counselor — who suggested her alma mater — had provided guidance during my senior year in high school, I might have attended a Catholic college and entered religious life. But my family learned in September of that year that Mom had cancer, and we lost her less than three months later. In the midst of all that pain, no one had any interest in helping me discern a course for my life.

Thus began a journey that included the black hole of depression, suicide attempts, loneliness, abusive relationships, false starts and life-altering mistakes. So now, even though I have an IQ of 136 and scored a composite of 30 on my ACT with a 36 in math, I work at a convenience store. By the time a truly gifted counselor helped me begin unraveling the inner chaos that prevented me from living a productive life, I had an abysmal track record, and have never been able to overcome that start.

Of course, part of the problem has been a spiritual streak which has been both my nemesis and the saving grace of my life. I have never been able to turn my back on someone in need. In Matthew’s gospel, in speaking about the Last Judgment, Jesus said the righteous would be told, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you received me in to your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35-36, TEV). He went on to explain, “Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me” (Matt 25:40, TEV).

I can’t say I saw Christ in the recovering drug addict who was trying to discover what it meant to live authentically without using drugs, or the young woman who was raised in an abusive family and didn’t know how to relate to her husband without violence. I can’t say I saw Christ in the young mom who had been raised in foster homes and had three children by three different men in a desperate search for love, or in any of the others I have cared for or mentored over the years. I simply could not see their need without reaching out to help; it is not in me to turn a blind eye to suffering, even if helping others takes an emotional (and sometimes financial) toll.

Fortunately, since returning to the Catholic church nearly two decades ago, I’ve found sustenance in the Eucharist. The grace of the sacrament, receiving the Body of Christ, truly nourishes me in ways that those who are not Catholic probably can never understand. The only analogy I can use is pale by comparison: receiving communion with a heart open to the presence of Christ in the bread is similar to the sense of emotional well-being experienced after spending time with a dear friend or much loved family member.

The fullest experience in life I can imagine is one that priests enjoy each time they celebrate Mass. Through them, as they stand in the person of Christ, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. They truly feed the hungry in ways I will never be allowed, despite my inner need to care for those who are beloved of God.

Ironically, if I were not Catholic, if  I did not need the Eucharist in the same way I need the air I breathe, I probably could minister to his people in a more official capacity. A dear, dear friend — who is also a Lutheran pastor — has suggested to me on more than one occasion that I consider entering the ministry. She is not  the first to have done so. An Episcopalian priest did so; a couple other Lutheran pastors did so; a Methodist pastor did so. Giving up the Eucharist is simply not an option for me.

So, while efforts to officially serve in some capacity in the Catholic church have come to nothing, and I find I cannot leave the church again to serve in another denomination, I am in the neverland of loving God passionately while finding few opportunities to share this love in ways other than simply serving those who pass through my life. I can’t even chuckle about the irony of discovering at this point in my life that there is a call for the ordination of women as part of an overall metanoia (change of consciousness) in the Church.

I have long believed that women will be ordained in the Catholic church at some point. It wasn’t a fluke that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene (my name, too, by the way) before he appeared to any of the men following the Resurrection (John 20:11-18). He didn’t say to her “Go to my brothers and tell them…” (John 20:17, TEV) because he wanted women to remain silent in the church as Paul later asserted (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:11-12). Rather, he was trying to change the paradigm of religious authority so that among his followers, unlike their Jewish counterparts, the work of the Holy Spirit through women would be on equal footing as the Spirit’s work through men.

However, I have also believed I would not live to see women ordained in the Catholic church. The all-male Magisterium has been circling the wagons in defense against this possibility, which Pope John Paul II attempted to bulwark near the end of his papacy. I could not begin to imagine what would open that closed circle of power.

And yet, this morning, I discovered that 70-year-old Brother Louis DeThomasis, FSC, who has been a Christian Brother for more than 40 years and served as president of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, Minn., is attempting to do just that with a book called, FLYING IN THE FACE OF TRADITION: LISTENING TO THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF THE FAITHFUL. According to the review I read, he states, “After listening to the arguments put forth by the institutional church that Jesus would demand anything other than the full, complete and total equality of all persons in his church and finding those arguments completely unpersuasive and often silly, we the faithful believe that the ordination of women not only should take place, but must take place soon.”

It would be just like God to create this opportunity now that I’m too old to be among the first women he calls to the priesthood in the Church. Why he created me with that aptitude while not opening that door is one of those mysteries that will undoubtedly never be explained. After all, “‘My thoughts,’ says the Lord, ‘are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours'” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

(Not funny, God. Do you hear me?)

 

Nonsense

What’s with this?

My apartment is filled with the sound of passing vehicles because I have the porch door open so my cats can watch the traffic. My back hurts from rearranging the cooler at work last night, which involved shifting (i.e. moving each at least twice) well over 60 cases of beer and energy drinks. My hands are so swollen from the task that I had to take off my Black Hills gold ring, and my neck hurts because I fell asleep in the recliner while unwinding after work and didn’t wake until morning.

Still, I am filled with joy. Shouldn’t I feel … well, grouchy? Disgruntled because I had to do that heavy work when we have both men and younger women working at the store (which would be a deceitful position since I voluntarily assumed the task)? Irritated because I finally have a day off, but don’t have the energy to enjoy it?

In what way is joy an appropriate response to this situation? Those who have experienced joy know the answer. Joy isn’t circumstantial.

Happiness often is. I am happy the cats I have now don’t tear holes in screens (as one cat I owned did, preventing me from opening windows). I am happy the cooler is organized so we can find product with which to stock the sales displays. I am happy I was able to sleep last night because I had a backache when I came home from work.

These are good things. That I would appreciate a sense of well-being and satisfaction as a result is natural.

Joy, while experienced as a similar lifting of the spirits, is more elemental. As one of the fruits of the Spirit — the others are love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Gal. 5:22-23) — it is a gift and grace. But, more than that, it grows out of a relationship with God and his creation which is rooted and grounded in trust, in the belief that we are loved because we are his.

Paradoxically, the seeds of joy are planted when we take a two-fold approach to things of this world. On one hand, we need to take very personally the blessings that come into our lives, the experiences and people which enrich us immeasurably. Each blessing is a love letter from God.

Mary, I love you, God said, when I heard my granddaughters’ hearts beat for the first time. Mary, I love you, God said, when I glanced out the window at work a week or so ago and saw a double rainbow with colors so rich they might have been drawn with crayons. Mary, I love you, God said, when I discovered a coworker and I shared fond memories of a coffeehouse in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota.

On the other, we need to avoid taking personally the challenges and adversity which are integral to the  human experience. At those moments, we are more often than we realize being shaped by God to be his hands, feet or voice in the world. I see glimpses of this over and over in my life.

I have to admit, I was  approaching 50, before my heart and mind were open enough to appreciate God at work in this way. The night I saw the first glimmer of this understanding is still surrounded by a golden glow in my imagination.

I’d won a cash prize for my work in helping to bring South Dakota into compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and decided to use this money to start a journal-writing class at the women’s prison. Since my goal was to help the women understand writing could help them grow in wisdom, could help them make better decisions, I decided to be honest about my life — the abuse, the sexual violence, the mistakes, everything.

As I stood before that group of women, many of whom had also been abused, had also been victims of sexual violence, had also made mistakes (obviously), I saw the moment when a spark ran  through the room, when several of the women began to think, “If she can overcome her past, I can, too. I don’t need to be a victim of what happened to me.” In that moment, my past — all of the pain, all of the suffering, all of the mistakes I made out of a desperate and misguided attempt to escape these things — became a precious gift.

God had shaped me so I could give hope to others. Even now, thinking of it, I am almost breathless with gratitude, that I could be his servant in this way, that he could use me to help some of his wayward children find their way back into the blessed life he wanted to give them. Who would have believed he could use me in this way?

Women who have given birth experience something akin to the tremendous joy I felt that night. When the labor has ended and the child is placed in their arms for the first time, they glow. Memory of the pain is still with them, but it seems to be a small price to pay for the privilege of motherhood. 

Unfortunately  for us, God in his infinite wisdom doesn’t often show us how he is using us in the lives of others. My guess is that he knows Satan would have a heydey if he did. Few of us are not tempted by pride, at least from time to time. If we knew how God was using us, we’d probably be like the sons of Zebedee and imagine ourselves at God’s right and left hands (Mark 10:35-37).

Instead, we are asked to simply trust that he is at work in our lives when the going gets tough. Surprisingly, there’s a delicious freedom in that. It slices through the “why me?” without ignoring the “I hurt” and brings us to “thy will be done” where angels can minister to us as they did to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43).

They can whisper in our hearts a gentle reminder to pray, to enter into God’s presence. They can draw our attention to the little love letters God sends into each day to strengthen and encourage us. They can bring to mind songs and passages of Scripture which remind us of God’s loving care.

At some point, without any real effort on our part, we can abandon ourselves wholely to God without the need to understand or to control the situation in which we find ourselves. These moments of abandon are fleeting, but they leave behind a joy that’s not at all dependent upon immediate circumstances, and it is good.

Very good.