Taking Jim’s Advice

In case you opened this to see what words of wisdom my brother imparted — wrong Jim. I’m actually referring to Father James Martin, SJ.

Since reading his book, BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF FROM THOMAS MERTON AND OTHER SAINTS, (three or four times, actually) I’ve become a fan of his. I’ve read or listened to most of his books, including THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING, which I also read more than once. In addition, I’ve become one of his 55,000 Facebook friends, and had the audacity to contact him personally on several occasions. He had the graciousness to respond, and signed his email messages “Jim.” And so I’ve come to think of him as Jim.

This morning, before I even crawled out of bed, I checked Facebook to see what he’d written about the Apostolic Exhortation the Vatican released today. Evangelii Gadium — or, for those of us more fluent in English, “The Joy of the Gospel” — is the first major document that Pope Francis himself penned. Earlier this year, an encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI wrote and Pope Francis lightly edited was released — Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) — but it didn’t sound like the pope who has inspired me from the moment his election was announced.

The words of Pope Francis so often inspire me that I put the Pope App on my phone so I could read his homilies. And because I am trained to recognize an author’s voice — it’s absolutely amazing what years of college literature classes will teach you — I’ve come to know the way he uses language, the poetic way in which he uses repetition to create depth of meaning, the inviting way in which he shows us how our lives can be transformed by the Word of God. Pope Benedict’s writings inspired me, but Pope Francis’s words excite my imagination — perhaps just a difference of nuance, but definitely a difference.

And because Jim had read the interview with Pope Francis which was published in AMERICA MAGAZINE, a national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, before publication, I anticipated he’d read “The Joy of the Gospel” as well. Since I knew I wouldn’t get to it until after work, I wanted a hint regarding what it contained. What he wrote made it difficult to wait until this evening to begin it: “I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprisiing and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

As he briefly summarized Pope Francis’ vision for the Church I found it difficult to be the lone Catholic in this household. I wanted to share what he’d  written. “Francis is challenging himself … it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo … it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so …  it is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged in the world….” Near the end of his blog, Jim wrote, “My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document.Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call ….”

As I sat down with Evangelii Gadium tonight, I found I could only take my time with it. In fact, I read only the first section — eight paragraphs. Some sentences I read over and over, letting them seep into me. I made marginal comments and checked one Scriptural quotation. (Is that really in the Bible? Yes, it is! How could I have not seen it before?)*

Nearly an hour after I began to read, I knew I could read no more tonight. One passage had touched something deep and I needed to reflect on it, on the sense of affirmation I experienced as read those words for the first time — an affirmation as ethereal as an angel’s touch and yet undeniable. Pope Francis had written, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s} boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will” [3].

Start anew, as I am now. The other night as I sat knitting a blue cowl for Sara, I thought, “I’m pregnant.” Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. I am waiting, just as I did when I carried my beloved children, for the moment of birth, for that new beginning. It’s coming; I’ve felt it for months. Sometimes it’s powerful, almost tangible, as it was on those summer mornings when I felt I was living on the cusp of a miracle. At other times, it’s gentle, and the mystery of not knowing the shape it will take is balanced by a quiet certainty that in trusting God at this moment I am allowing his promise to ripen within me.

That is not to say I sit around and twiddle my thumbs — or knit. No, I get up in the morning and go to the $8 per hour Experience Works position that has been mine since mid-October, and put in the allocated hours (not to exceed 21 per week). At home, I do the laundry, help out with the dishes and the twins, and occasionally do a little cleaning as well. My primary job, though, is seeking employment. In the evening, I sit down at the computer I inherited when Sara and Brodie upgraded and do what must be done — job searches, resume revisions, application submissions.

But under the activity is a quiet assurance that God is at work, and when the time is right — hopefully sooner than later — a door will open that I cannot even begin to imagine at present. As I once rested my hand upon my swollen abdomen to feel my children move within me — not knowing in those pre-ultrasound days whether I carried a son or daughter — and knew an inexplicable contentment, I now rest my hope in the Lord and feel equally content, equally blessed, knowing my life will again be touched by the mystery of the new life.

This is me, lifting  up my head. This is me, not stripped of my dignity by life experiences that eroded my self-confidence for a time. This is me, experiencing joy which the Lord has restored to me. I may be 58 years old and virtually unemployed, but God has touched me with his boundless and unfailing love, and with great tenderness has opened my heart to the possibility of a personal resurrection.

Yes, Jim, I will take time over Evangelii Gadium. Thanks for the suggestion.

* “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means … Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.” (Sirach 14:11,14)


Stuck in the Bedroom

The bedroom in my childhood home was shaped like a capital L. Along what would have been the upright portion of the L, had the room been vertical rather than horizontal, a line of windows let in the soft northern light. My bed was tucked away in the alcove of the lower portion, which would have nestled on the line had I been printing one of those magic four letter words — Love or Luck or Lead.

I was thinking this morning about the way that bedroom shaped something inside me, about the way hours spent within those walls affected the way in which I viewed the world. Who would have guessed? Could have guessed?

As usual, meandering thoughts led me to this insight — thoughts which have been wandering this way and that for a couple months. The beginning was the Labor Day meditation in the MAGNIFICAT penned by soon-to-be-saint John Paul II. (The MAGNIFICAT is a devotional, published monthly for Catholics. It includes morning prayers, evening prayers, night prayers, daily Mass readings, daily meditations and other uplifting material. I have to admit, I only use about half of it, but that half does help  to shape my days.)

After noting that work increases a man’s dignity — and I certainly hope he was using “man” in the old-fashioned, pre-inclusive language way in which individuals, who could be either male or female, were identified when I was in high school — Blessed John Paul II wrote, “Work is a good thing for a man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man … achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.'”

I suspect that resonated with me because I’m seeking work these days — for the second time in two years. And, since I’m now over half-a-century old (as my youngest daughter delighted in reminding me when I actually hit that milestone a few years ago), I find myself approaching the task differently than in the past. First of all, I’ve rarely had any idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Twice in my life I had an inkling and pursued those goals with what, for me, amounted to diligence until ignorance (and pride) led me to set them aside.

Based on years of real-life experience, I can say with full confidence that Laurence J. Peter, knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” Somehow, when I was young, I just figured things would work out. I didn’t expect to find myself living with my daughter and her family, enrolled in a program for low-income senior citizens, and longing with a quiet ache to get my few possessions out of storage and to set up housekeeping on my own again. I have undoubtedly ended up “somewhere else.”

But this job search differs from similar exploratory adventures for another, possibly more important, reason. When I was young, I didn’t consider my spiritual life when making employment decisions. I could go to church anywhere, right? Later, when I wanted to seek God’s will in that area of my life, I had absolutely no idea how to discern the way in which he was guiding me. Anyone who’s read the Bible knows Satan can be pretty cunning when it comes to misdirecting our efforts, and a novice with good intentions was easily led down the wrong path.

The decision that haunted me the longest was the decision to take a newspaper job in 2007, one which required me to move from a community I loved, a community in which I had a meaningful ministry, an active prayer community and a dynamic parish family. I dragged my feet packing because I had such a knot in the pit of my stomach. I cried for over an hour as I headed for the community which would become my new home. Every misadventure became an insurmountable obstacle and before long I had plummeted into depression. I  didn’t stick around long — only a few months — and then I moved on to another job, one that didn’t prove to be a good fit either, though I did stay there for four years.

Over the years, I struggled to understand what I’d done wrong in 2007. I became more involved in the parishes I joined — becoming a lector and Eucharistic minister as well as a religious ed teacher. My prayer life went deeper as I spent more and more time meditating on the Word of God and entering into Scripture with my imagination as well as with my understanding. I learned to trust God for daily bread as the Israelites trusted him for manna in the desert. And yet, I never lost the sense that I had made a mistake, one that I could easily repeat unless I came to understand it.

A few months ago, I realized that my mistake was the sin of worshiping a Golden Calf, one that our society encourages us to worship — professional success. At the time I made the decision, I was experiencing what (I think) is known in Ignatian spirituality as a time of great consolation. God spoke to me in very powerful ways, helping me to understand Scripture in deeply personal ways. One of the lessons he had for me was this: “To bloom, we must put down roots.”

When I sought to enter religious life, the vocations director suggested that because I was divorced, I lacked the capacity to honor a commitment. At first, I was struck by the injustice of that observation. I graduated from college, which was difficult because I was a single parent; that took commitment. I raised two girls by myself and raised them well, shouldering the full burden of responsibilities myself; that took commitment. However, her words took up root and I also saw what I didn’t complete — the Master’s degree in English, the Master’s degree in Education, half a dozen novels I’d started to write over the years. I also realized that I didn’t stick with a job for more than a few years. I looked at my life and it didn’t appear to be especially fruitful. That’s when, meditating on the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-8), I realized the need to put down roots.

Did I allow that insight to influence the professional decision I made? Obviously, I didn’t. Instead of putting down roots, getting a job — any job — and continuing to live in a community where God was blessing me so abundantly, I pulled up roots and moved so that I could continue working in a profession where I’d gained recognition. Oh! Great Cow of Public Acclaim! Oh! Blessed Bovine of Public Influence! I will follow you rather that the Lord! My actions said what my mind would never have allowed my lips to speak.

This time around, I know that in seeking employment, I am also seeking to enter more deeply into the mystery of God at work in our lives and in creation. This time around, I know that God who “knit me in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13) and “so wonderfully” made me (Ps. 139:14) wants me to find work which will help me to become more fully myself, work that will use the skills and abilities he gave me. That’s what Blessed John Paul II was saying when he wrote about work helping us “achieve fulfillment.”

What does this have to do with the bedroom where I spent my formative years? My family lived in a house jointly owned by my dad and his two sisters, and my parents were very conscious of being stewards not owners. Great care was taken to maintain the house. That means furniture wasn’t rearranged because it might scratch the hardwood floors, and pictures were not hung  on the walls because nail holes might crack the plaster, and I was not allowed to create a space that reflected my interests for fear it might cause some damage. I slept in the room, but it was not mine.

It struck me this morning that I’ve approached my life — at least in the area of professional development — in much the same way — as  though this life were not mine. Instead of seeking to express myself, instead of seeking to create a career which reflected my skills and abilities, I’ve simply adapted to parameters which — in this area, at least — were probably as much illusion as reality. I think it’s time to get out of the bedroom, time to set aside attitudes forged in my childhood home. It’s  time to seek my fulfillment through work.

As the Hillel the Elder (a Jewish rabbi who lived about 100 years before Jesus) said, “If not now, when?” I’m not getting any younger.