The Lent of Limitations

I am tired. At this moment, I would like nothing more than to crawl into bed and grab a few more hours of sleep, but I can’t. I work the graveyard shift tonight, so I intentionally crawled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. with the hope that rising early will enable me to take a nap before heading off to work.

Lucky me. This is going to be one of my ping-pong weeks. I work two graveyard shifts and four day shifts without a day off between the two. And, as the weekend rolls around, day five and day six of my work week, I’ll be tackling a few managerial responsibilities in addition to my normal eight-hour shift. How did I get to be so lucky?

An employee decided not show up for work on Saturday night. I had gone in at 11 a.m. because the manager had taken a long weekend and I had a few chores to tackle before working my 2-10 shift. By 10 p.m., I was tired. By 10:15, I knew that I was in for an even longer workday, because the gal scheduled to work hadn’t arrived and hadn’t called to say she was going to be late. I consulted the manager — even though he was technically on vacation — because I knew I couldn’t work another eight hours and then turn around after being off work just a few hours to work my regular 2-10 shift on Sunday. He said he’d come in at 2:30.

Needless to say, I missed Mass on Sunday morning. I might have been able to move had someone told me the building was on fire, but then again, I might have said, “I’ll die of smoke inhalation before the flames reach me, so just let me sleep.” Yes, I was that tired after working 15.5 hours.

The whole season of Lent has challenged me to face up to my physical limitations. The store manager had to use some of his vacation time or lose it, so I’ve been working long weekends. Normally, I work 2-10 on Saturday and then noon to six on Sunday. With a schedule like that, I can usually drag myself out of bed for 8 a.m. Mass, even if my back and feet still ache from standing on concrete floors for eight hours the previous night and from lifting cases of pop and beer. I know that after Mass, I can sit down in the recliner and rest or nap a few more hours before going to work.

However, when I manager is gone, I have to schedule other employees for my shift during the week in order to take care of his responsibilities. By the time the weekend rolls around, they’ve worked the maximum number of hours the company allows, and I have to work longer hours than usual. Week after week, I wake at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, put swollen feet on the floor, and pull myself up bracing myself on the dresser, and then plead, “Please forgive me, Lord,” and sink back down on the bed to rest for a couple more hours before work.

It’s humbling to recognize the physical limitations of aging. When I was young — going to college, caring for two young children and working part-time — it wasn’t unusual for me to function on five or six hours of sleep, sometimes less. The alarm would go off and I’d groggily crawl out of bed, take a shower to wake up, grab a Diet Coke and immerse myself in the routine of the day. I can’t do that anymore. I need more sleep, especially when my body has been taxed by physical challenges.

I’ve been asking God for wisdom. My well-formed Catholic conscience feels enormously guilty when I miss Mass, but another voice says, “God needs you rested for your ministry of presence at the convenience store. How can you serve him by caring for his people if you’re so tired you can’t even smile?” I don’t know if the voice that comforts me by saying this speaks the truth or is just assuaging my conscience. Because my life remains deeply steeped in prayer and I attend Mass during the week whenever possible, sometimes driving 50 miles in order to do so, I lean towards trusting the impulse which allows me to rest when my body cries out against rising.

At first, I was bothered by that age old question: What will people think? But as Lent has progressed, it has struck me how much Christ’s passion and death were a result of that mindset. Judas offended because Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly oil instead of selling it and using the proceeds to care for the poor; what will people think? The Pharisees and high priests conspiring against Jesus because he challenged them with a spirituality based on the spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law; what will people think? Peter denying Jesus following his arrest; what will people think? Pilate unable to follow his conscience because … what will people think?

And in reflecting upon this, I’ve been drawn into Christ’s suffering in a new way. Part of being human involves acknowledging both our limitations and the limitations of others. It has struck me that in his passion and in his death, Christ revealed how fully he had assumed our humanity.

We are shown how he was tempted following his baptism. The devil says, “You’re hungry, eat something.” He says, “No, the bread of life will be given later in my ministry, to feed the hungry who follow me.” The devil says, “I can trick everyone in the whole wide world into following you,” and Jesus says, “No, I will call people to me with the voice of truth, and those who are mine will hear my voice and follow me; I don’t need your deceitful ways.” Finally, the devil says, “You don’t have to die, you know; angels will prevent you from being injured,” and Jesus says, “Get lost.”

The devil tempted him with words and images, but as he felt the crowds turn against him in Jerusalem, he must have been tempted in a more visceral way to display the power of God. When he sat down to the Passover supper with his friends, he talked and talked and talked and talked. The night before she died, my mother was like that, too. She talked and talked and talked; she had so much more she wanted to teach me. But, I think Jesus talked — and gave us the Eucharist — because the temptation was stronger at that moment than in the desert, when he was filled with the Spirit, to display God’s power.

He talked, because like all of us, he needed to bolster his courage. And then, he went into the Garden and embraced the course which had been set for his life. He allowed circumstances to carry him to the cross and the death which awaited for him there, stumbling with exhaustion — and perhaps with the frightening realization that it was really going to happen — as he carried upon his back the instrument of his death.
I can almost hear him say to himself, “I am God; I can stop this,” and then, “No, I am man and I will die.”

He embraced the full implications of the Incarnation and allowed himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. In the face of his example, how can we do less? We must learn to embrace our humanity and to open ourselves to the way in which he shapes us with the circumstances of our lives. We must do it, not because doing so is self-serving, but because only through doing so will we reflect him into the world in a way that others can experience as love.

My Burning Bush

I don’t know if he was making a joke or just thought I needed to lighten up. It’s hard to say with God. I just know that yesterday, before going to work, I was meditating on Exodus, Chapter 3, when I started laughing out loud.

I am painting leaves these days. I was meditating on the burning bush. Get it?

Yeah, I suppose something gets lost in translation, so I’ll back up a little and see if I can explain this in a way that makes sense. When I meditate on Scripture, I write, using a technique I picked up from a marvelous little book by a Norbertine priest named Francis Dorff called SIMPLY SOULSTIRRING: WRITING AS A MEDITATIVE PRACTICE. (Brief aside: the only thing I know about the Norbertines is that they were founded by St. Norbert in 1120 and that the rule — or guidelines — for the order were given to him in a vision by St. Augustine of Hippo.)

I was meditating on the burning bush as part of the online retreat I am making for Lent, an Ignatian Prayer Adventure. Between the demands of my job and the way in which the retreat is moving me to new places not only in terms of my prayer life, but also in terms of the way I see myself in relationship to God and his creation, I’m not moving through the meditations very quickly. I think I spent nearly five days on the Annunciation alone (parts of which I’ll share in another blog). When I sat down to meditate on the burning bush, I actually wrote in my journal, “I have been dawdling over Week One and feel that I must push on to Week Two.” Even though three separate sections of the passage spoke to me — which would usually indicate I would spend at least three days reflecting on this, spending one day with each section — my “goal” was to push through the passage in one sitting.

I’m sure you know this piece of folk wisdom: if you want to see God laugh, make plans of your own. That’s pretty much the way my meditation went. At first, I was making great progress. I reflected generally on what I believe to be my call at present: to be among those working for unity in the Catholic Church, a voice helping others to see that God desires a rich symphony of life in his Church; that he does not want divided camps with believers acting as though only those who share their interests are part of the “true” Church, but rather wants all of us to respond to the call he places in our hearts so that together we are addressing all of the needs that exist in our world today.

That went well. Then I continued by meditating on verse 3, which is what Moses said to himself when he saw burning bush: “I must go over and look at this remarkable sight.” I considered this in light of what I’m learning through Ignatian spirituality about God leading us with our desires. That, too, went well and was affirming.

Then, I wrote: “And isn’t the next part important, then, too? ‘Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you stand is holy ground’ (v.5). Stop! Recognize that where you are is magnificent, because you have come in response to my call. It’s a holy place. It’s where you said ‘yes!’ to the angel in the burning bush of your desire. Just stop, take off the shoes with which you journey and listen! Let me reveal what will come next. This is a turning point.”

Suddenly, I started laughing. In front of me was a small painting from my Simple Gifts series with which I was not fully satisfied. I tried painting a maple leaf, but it ended up looking more like a child’s rendition of a campfire. With that less than a yard from my nose, I could not miss the point God was making.

As the laughter lifted a burden of exhaustion and frustration that work had placed upon me, I realized that right here, right now in my daily life I was saying ‘yes’ to God. While I may be attached to the grand and glorious call to work for Church unity, he wants me to paint as an act of faith, as a blind act of trust in him. He wants me to believe he is up to something even if I cannot understand just what.

And he wants me to let painting soothe me when I come home emotionally bruised because the drama queens at work have concocted a story which casts me in the role of the wicked witch. He wants me to let painting comfort me as I carry to him my concerns about the people I encounter through my job — the man struggling with grief at the loss of his mother, the single mom who finds herself pregnant again just weeks after moving in with her latest boyfriend, the grandmother whose 3-year-old grandson is receiving chemotherapy for leukemia, the young man whose wife went out to buy cigarettes and didn’t come back.

He wants me to take off the shoes I wear as I go into the world and simply rest in the holy place that he has given me. Yes, he’s going to send me out again. But, before he does, he’s going to renew my spirit so that I can listen with his ears to the cries of those enslaved by life circumstances which are difficult for them to bear, so that I can carry his love into the world.

By embracing this, by recognizing the angel in the burning bush of my little leaves, I am saying ‘Yes!’ to God. Who would have guessed? And who knows what God will have for me when I continue to reflect on this passage from Exodus, since my plan to finish in one day didn’t quite go as anticipated?